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Garden Journal

Garden Journal: Composting is easy

Bring on the bugs and the dirty socks, scrapes, scratches, sunburnt noses, lost gardening gloves and bears that love birdfeeders – around here there is nothing like summertime to help get you inspired to grow something green.

Instead of the usual petunia boxes, the common trend today is to plant more food. Arugula and lemon thyme mixed with nasturtiums and edible flowers make a pretty arrangement, or go for tomato plants and dill surrounded by bushy Marguerite daisies (Argyranthemum) in a raised bed. The interesting combinations of food and friendly flowers are endless, and the rewards are heaped with a healthy ecological quality of life. Who doesn’t want that?

Our way of life is changing, as education about foods and choices we can make about our own health emerge. There is something empowering about being able to control the quality of the foods we eat. And once you have tasted your own or local grown produce, the proverbial light bulb will go on over your head. Why put up with chemical-laden, over-sprayed, artificially enhanced, commercially grown, tasteless food when you can have it the way nature intended?

Agricultural methods are slowly catching up to the times although, sadly, as the demand for food rises ever more, old-fashioned, toxic farming methods cannot be switched off that easily. But that is no excuse for poor waste management. Methane gas escapes as more and more waste material is heaped high into landfills because we are still using incineration processes that release a vast amount of carbon dioxide into our precious atmosphere. Most of us dump out our trash and never give it another thought. With a little effort and a little more understanding, this can be reversed.

What if everything you compost at home became a thriving habitat and nutritious fodder for an entire population of bacteria, bugs, worms, fungi and creepy crawlies?

What if you could make your own nourishing food for your garden plants? The amount of methane emitted through a well-managed compost heap at home is zero. Starting a compost pile isn’t difficult, and doing so helps you dispose of your kitchen waste in an environmentally friendly, more cost-effective and beneficial way to you, your garden, your health and the planet.

When I first began to compost my house waste I noticed my trash was reduced by a third. Today, it is reduced by half or even more, but I think that is because my diet has tended toward eating more greens and healthy food than ever before. I love growing my own food!

There were a few composting incidents with curious wildlife in the beginning of my composting journey, particularly one summer evening when I had people over for lobster and corn on the cob. I am sure the raccoons will never forget it, either.

But, once you get the hang of it, there is a nice rhythm to collecting and burying your coffee grounds, vegetable waste, uneaten greens and dead flower heads. You can control the rascally varmints by calming any odors emitting from your compost by mixing in brown and green materials, such as leaves and grass, and by covering it right away with topsoil for at least two weeks before adding more.

There are a number of ways to get started. The simplest and most effortless way is to do what our grandparents did. They would grab a shovel and take the compost bucket out to the edge of the yard, dig a deep hole, and dump in the green waste, leaving the shovel at the spot so that they would know where to dig the next time.

They would make their way all around the property and back to the beginning, and that is where the black gold for planting was. They knew that composting is nature’s way of recycling, producing a rich degraded organic matter or humus.

This humus provides channels for air and moisture to get into the soil and other gases to get out, with circulation for fungi and insects. Soils with organic matter in them allow mycorrhiza fungi to form. If your garden is not doing well, it is most likely due to lack of humus and live nutrients.

This is a completely natural and organic process that puts you more in balance with nature. A huge subject to go into at another time.

Fact: plants grown in garden soil mixed with compost will be stronger, bigger and more able to withstand drought and insects than plants that are grown in regular garden soil. Artificial plant food and commercially sold compost is the opposite of humus, and using those types of products create an endless cycle of depleted soil, more insect invasion and diseased plants.

The outdoor compost bin method is the ideal way to manage green waste: veggies and fruits, eggshells, coffee grounds, fireplace ashes, dryer lint, sawdust from clean wood, nutshells, cotton, wool, paper and olive oils. Check with your local recycling coordinator for details on fats and grease. Do not compost pet waste, magazines, charcoal, dairy, meat, chemicals of any kind. Also, avocado pits take forever to break down, so it’s better to plant one and grow it. Oh, and stinky fish is very okay!

Become a composter

What you will be making is like a layer cake that will turn into rich, dark, crumbly yummies for the garden. Here are a few rules to help get you started:

1. Start on bare ground or dig a hole.

2. Construct bins using untreated wood or purchase a composting bin. You can make one out of a lidded trash can that has air holes poked into it.

3. Piles should be no more than 3 feet cubed, which is an easy to manage size.

4. Keep a pile of chopped leaves handy. (What? You’re not saving your leaves and mowing them up?)

5. Add some dried cow manure to get things started.

6. Wet and add your greens.

7. Alternate layers of garden waste, grass clippings and house waste.

8. Top with top soil, repeat layering.

9. Let sit for 2 to 3 weeks and stir before adding more to the center of the pile.

10. Stop turning the pile after the ground freezes. You can keep compost in garbage cans over the winter.

While the pundits will keep arguing forever about whether the benefits of organic and all-natural produce and the nutritional differences between organic food and conventionally produced food matter to our health and to our planet, the difference is a plain: Organic, all-natural food tastes way better to both humans and to the garden!

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