Ron Krupp: Laying the groundwork for backyard composting

Friend and fellow gardener Fred Schmidt and I have been offering composting workshops to the public at the Tommy Thompson Community Garden at the Intervale in Burlington, under the auspices of the Chittenden Regional Solid Waste District.

It won’t be long before we’ll all have to recycle food scraps. There’s already a $1.50 charge for taking a five-gallon container of food scraps to the local drop-off center – though some haulers will provide curbside collection.

So the purpose of our composting workshops was to address how to handle food scraps and other organic materials. We also covered the most appropriate types of compost bins and open piles, where to locate them, what materials to put in and what to avoid.

One simple method is to tie three wood pallets together, leaving one side open for easy access to turn the pile. The main volume of the pile itself should be carbonaceous materials such as leaves, old grass clippings, hay mulch, and dried up plant matter from the garden. Nitrogen in the form of fresh food scraps, green grass clippings, and animal manure makes up the rest.

Compost – or what I like to call black gold – improves soil structure and water-holding capacity and provides nutrients to the soil. It also helps the soil stay loose and easy to cultivate. Compost contains beneficial bacteria that restore soil balance so nutrients are available to roots, and compost helps fight soil-borne pathogens because it contains antibiotics.

The feeder roots of plants absorb nutrients through fine fungal strands, which are fed by spongy humus in the soil that’s rich in compost and broken down plant material. Black gold and cover crops like winter rye lay the foundation for organic gardening.

Touch, sight, smell, and a handy pitchfork all help maintain a healthy compost pile. If it’s too wet, open it up with the pitchfork and add dry leaves and mulch hay. If the pile smells from too much nitrogen – as it might from chicken manure – do the same.

If the pile’s too hot, open it up with the pitchfork to let it breath. If the pile’s too dry, turn it and water it down. And if the pile is cold and not breaking down into a crumbly, dark material, add fresh manure and lawn clippings.

Compost is ready to spread when the earthworms have left the pile. So folks: go compost.

Ron Krupp is the author of “The Woodchuck Returns to Gardening.” This commentary originally aired on Vermont Public Radio and comes to The Citizen via VTDigger.org.

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