The Benefits of Compost

Often called "black gold," compost is valued for giving plants a boost when added to the soil of garden beds. Learn how to give your compost pile the jumpstart it needs.
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SHNS_JoeLampl05_08

Composting occurs in nature constantly. Plant and animal waste breaks down into soil-like particles over time, with no involvement from us. The simplest compost piles are just that--piles of yard waste and kitchen scraps.

Composting utilizes garden waste to create healthy, organically rich soil that can be added back to the garden to provide additional nutrition for plants. Once a plant is past its useful life, is cut back during routine maintenance or dies back when the gardening season ends, it can be removed from the garden. The decaying plant material can be discarded into the compost pile where it will break down into rich organic matter. Then it can be reused in the garden as a soil amendment that serves as "black gold," enriching the soil and growing the healthiest plants.

How Composting Works

Composting occurs when plant waste begins to break down from its plant form into organic matter rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, the same nutrients we get in a fertilizer bag. It also makes trace elements, which are small chemicals essential to healthy plant growth, readily available. Once a compost pile has completely broken down all of the garden waste you've added, you’re left with what looks like black dirt.

Compost needs four main ingredients to work: green waste, brown-dry waste, water and microorganisms. The ratio needed is two to three parts green waste, such as lawn clippings, over-ripe fruit or veggies or green leaves to one part brown-dry waste like dried leaves.

Once you've started layering in the waste, add water to the compost and mix everything together. This will get the process started. It takes beneficial microorganisms to cause the breakdown of all that you've added. These are naturally occurring in green garden clippings, so most of the time you don't have to add them.

Compost needs heat to work. A compost pile can get higher than 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Microorganisms release heat as they break down waste. You have to keep turning the pile to make sure all parts of the compost get hot enough to decompose. Once the pile cools off, the compost process is finished, and you can then add it to your garden.

Jump-Starting a Compost Pile

If your compost doesn't seem to be breaking down your garden waste as well as it should be, buy a compost starter at your local garden center. Compost starter is made up of enzymes and microorganisms that’ll make your compost pile start working again. Depending on the amount you need, buying compost starter at your local garden center or home improvement store will cost between $5 and $20.

Another way to jump-start a compost pile is to add a very small amount of a fertilizer that's high in nitrogen. The nitrogen found in fertilizer and green waste is what helps the compost get started. You can begin by adding a few tablespoons of fertilizer and working it in with a pitchfork to get it to the center of the pile. Wait a few days and see if the temperature in the pile is rising, if not add another tablespoon of fertilizer and repeat the process until the temperature rises again. Remember to wear gloves and a mask when working with fertilizer.

Using Compost in the Garden

The best ways to use compost is to spread it around plants that are already growing or work the compost into the ground before you plant. Organic gardens use compost, instead of manmade chemical fertilizers, to get more vegetables from their plants. If you want to grow organic vegetables, a compost pile will be one of the most important tools in your garden.

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