Compost Do’s & Don’ts
As you tackle composting, you’ll encounter simple questions. Do I need to turn the pile? Can I add newspapers? What about weeds? Why is my kitchen waste all over the yard? Use our checklist to unravel your compost queries.
The Do’s of Composting
Location. Place your compost pile where it’s convenient to fill and unload. Most gardeners stick the compost out of sight, which works if you have a riding tractor with a cart (or a good wheelbarrow and a strong back) to move materials to and from the pile.
Moisture. Composting stops in a too-dry pile. An active compost pile should feel like a damp sponge. Don’t place your pile beyond the reach of the garden hose. During drought, you’ll need to water it.
Starter. Get finished compost faster by adding “hot” compost starter or a half shovelful of finished compost between layers. Both materials contain microorganisms. You can also add a half shovelful of nutrient-rich meal (blood meal, alfalfa meal, etc.) or composted or well-rotted manure between layers.
Turning. You don’t have to turn the compost pile – ever – but turning does speed up the decomposition process. By turning the pile, you introduce air and move outer, less decomposed layers into the center, where the action is. Many gardeners turn the pile once a growing season.
Kitchen waste. Bury kitchen waste within the pile. If you heap it on top or barely cover it, critters will find the free buffet. Corn cobs make great additions because they add air pockets.
Shredding. Smaller materials decompose more quickly. Run over leaves with a mower and grass catcher attachment. Chop fruit and thick items, like broccoli stems, melon skins, pumpkins and gourds. Set aside larger sticks and branches for an annual chipping using a rented chipper-shredder.
Slow going. Holly, Southern magnolia, rhododendron and oak leaves decompose more slowly. Shred or chop these and place them in a separate pile to limit slowing the process in the main pile. Oak leaves produce a more acid compost ideal for acid-loving plants.
Odd compostables. Add shredded newspapers or office paper in moderation. Dryer lint decomposes if it contains natural fibers, but doesn’t contain much nutritive value. Freshwater aquarium water and plants make great additions. Wood ash is okay in small amounts. Pet hair breaks down slowly; add only in small amounts.
Recycle. As you harvest finished compost, toss uncomposted branches, stalks or corn cobs aside and work them into the new compost pile. They’ll add air pockets and eventually decompose.
Screen. Some gardeners like to screen finished compost to filter out larger chunks. If you’re tossing large branches into your compost pile, pull those out before retrieving finished compost, and then add them back into the pile afterward.
Finished compost. Create a holding bin for finished compost. This container should have air holes and be open to surrounding soil so creatures can continue the decomposition process. Protect compost from rain. Add finished compost to every planting hole for slow-but-steady soil improvement.
The Don’ts of Composting
Don’t add weeds that contain seeds or root easily from cuttings, such as creeping Charlie or purslane. If you’re unsure, don’t compost it.
Don’t add whole autumn leaves. They can mat together, limit water penetration, and won’t decompose.
Don’t add dairy products, meat, bones or animal waste.
Don’t add diseased or insect-infested plants. This is vital when composting vegetable plants. If Mexican bean beetles infested your beans, don’t compost the plants to avoid harboring adults or eggs. The same is true with powdery mildew–infested squash vines. Adding these infests the pile.
Don’t add mounds of grass clippings without mixing them with something brown (like shredded dry leaves or newspapers), or they’ll eventually stink.
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