Try Composting This Year
by Don Janssen, Extension Educator
It's simple, inexpensive, low-tech and good for the garden, and it recycles yard waste and even kitchen scraps into a valuable garden additive. You guessed it - it's a compost pile.
Composting converts grass clippings, fallen leaves and other landscape leftovers into a nutritious soil amendment. It recycles plant nutrients, improves the soil's structure, improves drainage in clay soil and increases the water-holding capacity of sandy soil. And there's nothing difficult or complicated about making it.
To start a compost pile, choose an out-of-the-way spot where the pile won't be an eyesore to you or your neighbors. A properly managed compost pile doesn't smell and doesn't lead to problems with rodents and other animals, but it isn't beautiful.
Though a compost pile can be a heap of clippings, leaves, potato peels and other plant materials simply piled on the ground, it will be easier to turn if it's enclosed in some way. Ready-made bins are available. Enclosures can also be built of cement blocks, logs, boards or wire fencing.
The contents may include plant remains from the lawn and garden as well as the kitchen. Avoid adding meat scraps or grease, which may attract dogs and raccoons, and large amounts of garbage, which might appeal to rats. Begin with a 6-inch layer of organic materials, then cover that with ½ to 1 inch of topsoil or a couple bushels of compost. To hasten the process, add 1 or 2 cups of a high-nitrogen fertilizer to each layer of raw materials. Adding nitrogen is especially important if you're composting sawdust, paper and woody plants, which are low in nitrogen. Nitrogen feeds the soil bacteria that do the work of decomposition. Increasing the amount of nitrogen available speeds up the process.
Thoroughly mix and moisten the layers, leaving the pile flat or slightly saucer-shaped so rain will percolate down through it rather than run off.
You can add new organic material, fertilizer, manure and topsoil whenever you have enough material to make a new layer. Stirring to blend the materials is not absolutely necessary, but it does make the pile work faster and the material decompose evenly so it's all ready to use at once.
One way to make the stirring easier is to use two bins and move the material from one to the other.
How long it takes to produce finished compost is one of those "it depends" questions. The soil bacteria work faster in warm weather, so a pile started in the spring will produce finished compost quicker than one started in the fall. A pile that contains extra nitrogen and is stirred every few days will work faster than one that contains only soil and organic material and doesn't get stirred.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension in Lancaster County is your on-line yard and garden educational resource. The information on this Web site is valid for residents of southeastern Nebraska. It may or may not apply in your area. If you live outside southeastern Nebraska, visit your local Extension office