Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Turning Trash into Cash in the Garden

Kitchen scraps, shredded paper, grass clippings and leaves usually end up in the trash bin. You can easily and cheaply turn them into a great amendment to fertilize and protect your plants and garden beds through composting.

By following a few basic guidelines, you can produce beautiful compost - and do so with relative ease.

So what is compost? Composting is the resulting product of the natural decomposition of anything once living.

So why compost? Here are a few of the most significant benefits:
· Improves soil structure - gives it crumbly texture, beneficial for root growth.
· Improves water-retention in soils, helping to keep plants healthier for longer in dry conditions.
· Provides a source of slow-release, organic fertilizer for your plants.
· Boosts the community of microorganisms and other creatures (worms) beneficial for enhancing nutrient uptake and fighting plant diseases.
· Reduces the amount of waste that ends up in the landfill. (Can make up as
much as 20-40% of the total waste stream.)

Here are the basic requirements for making compost - 1) Water, 2) Organic ‘waste’, 3) Warmth, and 4) Oxygen.

Water – Water is necessary to provide the environment necessary for the microbes to begin the break down of the organic waste. A ‘moist wrung-out sponge’ type of environment is best.

Organic Waste - There are two very important elements to consider when deciding what materials to use - carbon and nitrogen (aka Browns and Greens.) A reasonable rule of thumb would be to use about twice as much c-rich material as n-rich but there are no hard and fast rules for composting.

Here are some common examples:
C-Rich (Browns)
Tree and shrub leaves (dead), cardboard, newspaper, shredded paper, wood chips,
N-Rich (Greens)
Fresh grass clippings, green yard waste, kitchen waste, hair

Warmth - The size of the heap (or container that holds the materials) is also an important consideration. You need a certain “critical mass” in order for a heap of organic materials to generate enough heat for composting to occur.

There are many ways to store your compost while it is breaking down and keeping warm. One of the simplest is to use an old garbage bin. Just cut off the bottom and drill holes for air flow. Other options include purchasing a compost tumbler or making your own bin out of used wooden pallets.

Oxygen - The materials must be mixed occasionally to incorporate air into the decomposition process. In fact turning is an important part of hot composting - as the composting mass heats up and more and more oxygen is consumed, the microbial action slows down, so a little help from you can be important.

The best way to see what works best is simply to start experimenting yourself. I like to think of composting as part art form, part science - once you’ve done it enough you will start to get a ‘feel’ for it and will be able to create a perfect pile without even thinking about it!
So what are you waiting for - why throw out all that great trash that can be turned into FREE garden fertilizer and soil amendments? I find it very empowering that I can create something that replces what I would normally go out and purchase. AND I know I am doing something great for my gardens and plants and let's not forget the environment. Even if you do not have a 'garden' pre se, you can use the humus around your ornamental plants, use it as a mulch to keep the soil moist or give it to a friend who gardens.
Still not sure if you can do this? There is a 90 minute class on compositng at the Downtown Phoenix Public Market on April 1st form 6 - 7:30 PM through the Phoenix Permaculture Guild (PPG) taught by a collegue of mine, Jay Johnson, who is extremelly knowledgeable about this topic and many others. Visit the PPG site for more information on this class.
Got a question about your compost pile? Ask away - I am also happy to reply!
Happy Digging!
The Garden Goddess


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