0902HORTcoulmnSept4ko.cfm The truth about compost
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The truth about compost

To compost or not to compost, that is the question? I think many novice composters find themselves asking this question while holding a piece of who knows what in their hand. I've discovered that people want to do the right thing--they really do. But in their ignorance of not knowing what the right thing is they are frozen by the fear of possibly doing the wrong thing. Confused? Let me clarify.

I didn't used to recycle. I knew that I should, but I wasn't sure how. I was afraid I would mess up the mystical recycling system if I were to put the wrong kind of plastic in the bin. Do they take 1s and 2s or do they take 5s also? It was an unknown system that I was unfamiliar with. I thought that if I unintentionally did it the wrong way I would have done more harm than good.

Rather than doing nothing; I started with an easy part--aluminum cans. I figured I could get that much right. I took my bag of cans to the center and, when there, I began asking questions about the other items I could recycle. I eased into it, and that is what you can do with composting. Just do a little at a time, ask questions as you go, and it will gradually become easy.

So why would a person want a heap of trash degrading in the back yard? There are numerous benefits to composting. The result of the process is some of the highest quality fertilizer and organic matter that a gardener can find. It is truly considered garden gold. Compost can be used as mulch around trees and shrubs; it can be incorporated into poor soils to help improve the structure; and it can also supply a routine feeding when used as topdressing throughout the growing season. Besides all of the horticultural benefits, it helps to eliminate materials from the solid waste process. Landfill space is valuable, and it is senseless to fill it up with lawn clippings and food scraps that can be composted.

A successful compost recipe consists of 75 percent brown (carbon) materials and 25 percent green (nitrogen) materials. The brown items include things such as dead leaves, woody materials and dried, brown grass or straw. Green materials consist of fresh grass clippings, fruit and vegetable remains and livestock manure. And remember that the smaller the items are to begin with the quicker they will transform into garden gold.

The previous are sort of rough guidelines to making a compost pile. Composting is more like cooking than baking. In baking, measurements must be very precise or the result will be nowhere near the expectations. When cooking, things sort of get tossed in and 'eyeballed' and the result is fairly predictable. Though composting isn't an exact science, there are some items that are important to keep out of a compost pile.

Pet waste should not be included in a compost pile. I'm referring to the 'normal' type of pets: cats and dogs. If you happen to have a pet cow, chicken or rabbit, that would be considered livestock manure and you are free to add that into the pile. A typical compost pile will not get hot enough to kill harmful pathogens found in the feces of meat eaters: dogs, cats and oh yeah--humans.

There are also a few items from the kitchen that can't be included in a compost pile. Meat scraps, fish scraps and bones can cause problems in the pile. They may attract animals that are interested in digging for treasures in the compost. Very fatty foods--foods that have a lot of oils and dairy products can also become troublesome. But just about everything else can be included from the kitchen. It doesn't matter if the scraps are raw or cooked--they can go into the pile.

Any items that are not biodegradable should be disposed. Plastics and other synthetic products will not break down in the pile. I am still finding bits of the plastic ties in my compost from the year I used them to tie up my tomato vines. They snuck in and are still turning up every now and then.

Products that are biodegradable but extremely large will be very slow to transform. Try to get branches and bulkier plant materials as small as possible before incorporating them into the pile. It took almost two years for the 'stumps' of my okra plants to break down. They were so large that the microbes were never able to make much progress.

To get more detailed information about building and maintaining a compost pile, contact the OSU Master Gardeners at 405-713-1125. They can help you design the pile that will fit best into your yard and help take the guess work out of what can and cannot be composted.

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