People who have never cultivated a garden or those gardeners who rely on commercial fertilizers to nourish their plantings may not have a full understanding of the beneficial nature of compost. This seems unfortunate to those gardeners who rely heavily on composted material to keep their backyard plots green in both senses of the word: leafy green and ecologically green.
Compost: What Is It?
Compost has two basic sources: commercial and homemade. The gardener can purchase compost in bags or in bulk amounts for larger plots at local nurseries or from landscaping businesses. Bulk compost generally costs less per cubic foot, but the user usually must purchase the it by the truckload or by the yard. Commercial compost will have a standard formula of soil (filler) to organic material ratio. Comparison shopping definitely will prove worthwhile when purchasing bulk amounts.
Unlike commercial compost, the homemade variety will vary greatly in the soil to organic matter ratio. The gardener who creates his or her own supply necessarily will work with material close at hand or easily obtained.
Whether homemade or commercial, however, garden compost will comprise primarily of dirt and vegetable matter that, through a process of rot and decay, has become a malleable substance easily worked into the garden soil. The composting process permeates the mass of material with beneficial bacteria, fungus, enzymes and, hopefully, worms. Whereas the gardener must apply commercial fertilizers with care so as not to overstimulate the plantings, compost can be spread on the garden at will -- generally, the more the better.
Creating the Compost
For the gardener wishing to avoid the expense and possible improper use of commercial fertilizers, a backyard compost resource makes sense. The process does not involve complicated or intensive, time-consuming labor. The gardener can utilize three methods to provide soil-enriching compost for the garden: a compost pile, a bin, or a rotating barrel or tumbler.
Compost pile. The compost pile can occupy any vacant area of about four feet in diameter in the backyard or garden. Start with bare ground, removing the sod if necessary. Over this area spread a few inches of chopped organic matter gleaned from the garden or from vegetable trimmings in the kitchen. Spread a thin layer of dirt (preferably topsoil perhaps shaken from the sod) across the organic material. Alternate layer by layer -- dirt, vegetation, dirt, vegetation -- until the pile reaches about four feet in height. To increase heat within the pile and retain moisture, cover it with a sheet of plastic.
Check the pile regularly from time to time to make sure it remains moist; water if necessary. Occasionally use a shovel or spading fork (an implement preferred by many gardeners) to turn the disintegrating material. To do this easily, relocate the entire compost pile, layer by layer, onto a nearby section of ground. Manipulating the compost pile hastens decomposition of the vegetable matter.
Compost bin. Construct a square bin or container of any scrap wood, about two or three feet high. Locate it near the garden area. Alternatively, use a large heavy-duty plastic container similar to a stock-watering trough. As with the compost pile, layer the bin with dirt and vegetation. Keep the bin covered and its contents moist. With a bin, turning the decomposing material usually can take place within the confines of the structure.
Rotating barrel. For about $150, the gardener can purchase a manually operated composting machine. The rotating activity provided by the composter underscores the importance of keeping the decomposing material in flux. Decomposing material allowed to remain stagnant takes considerably longer to become garden-ready compost.
Worms. Through their tunneling activities, worms help speed up the process of decomposition. With the compost pile or compost bin, worms probably will invade the material from the ground below. If not, bring worms to the compost pile or bin from other areas of the backyard or garden. The rotating composting machine also will benefit from this natural additive.
When the compost has matured, the worms and bacteria at work will have made the nutrients plants love readily available and easily obtained. The gardener can apply compost to the garden in one or more of three ways. Before planting, spade the compost into the garden soil to a depth of five or six inches. For deeper rooted plantings such as rhubarb, dig a hole for the planting and fill it with a compost-and-soil mix. Alternatively, place the compost on and around plants after planting or seeding, or use the compost as a mulch after the plants have matured somewhat.
Bottom line: Expect garden plants to grow vigorously and provide delicious, table-ready produce within a shorter time span when nourished by ample amounts of compost.