Compost is touted as a miracle product and held in high regards by every gardener with a basic knowledge of how plants grow. We buy it in bags at the garden center or have it delivered by the dump truck load.
And you can make it yourself.
While the practice of composting has been around for at least a couple thousand years, it has been since the mid-1900s that much of our scientific knowledge of the composting process has been figured out.
Away from science, you have to look no further than at the ground of any undisturbed forest around here. The fallen leaves, pine needles, branches and other organic material decompose without scientific knowledge. It will take longer, several months longer, than man-made systems, but the process will occur naturally.
We create our own compost system and simplify the process greatly by breaking the ingredients into two parts. We’ll use “green” and “brown” materials to put into a compost pile.
Greens are the nitrogen source. Green materials are colorful, freshly cut and contain moisture. They provide nutrients and moisture for the compost’s microbial workforce. Your kitchen vegetable scraps, the pile of weeds you just pulled out of your garden, fresh lawn clippings or other fresh trimmings from your landscape are “greens.”
Browns are the carbon source. Browns provide energy and are also used for absorbing excess moisture and giving structural strength to your pile. Browns would be the leaves that are just now beginning to fall. Pine needles that you gather or old dried out clippings would be excellent brown ingredients.
At the very simplest, mix 1-part green material with 2-3 parts brown materials. We have lots of leaves (brown material) available now. Some gardeners use what they need for the current amount of greens they have and set the remainder of the leaves aside to mix with fresh green trimmings or kitchen vegetable scraps as these greens become available.
You will layer these greens and browns together in an area that is no smaller that three feet wide and three feet deep. Put a layer of browns first, then alternate greens and browns until you have a pile that is at least three feet high.
The volume of a compost pile is crucial to the composting process as it takes a minimum volume to heat up. The 3x3x3 volume will ensure that you can have enough heat to kill off weed seeds and sterilize diseased plant tissue or other harmful pathogens.
The real workhorse is bacteria and fungi. These are the aerobic bacteria that will create heat as high as 150 degrees Fahrenheit as they oxidize the carbon materials present. Numerous gardeners have seen their own piles so warm that it generates steam as it goes about its work.
If you do want to add bacteria or fungus, I wouldn’t recommend purchasing those products. The microorganisms they are selling are already present on the leaves, food scraps and other material you are adding to the pile. If you want to add an inoculant, activator or other additive, simply sprinkle in a shovel full of your best soil and you will have more than enough microorganisms.
It is a fascinating process. Not all compost piles reach a very high temperature, so do not be discouraged if yours does not. Be sure to turn your pile every week or two. Under the best conditions, you’ll have usable compost in a couple months, while a pile of unmanaged leaves will take a year or more.
The Angelina County Extension office will hold a lunch and learn seminar on composting from noon to 1 p.m. Tuesday. The seminar will be taught via Skype by Skip Richter, horticultural Extension agent serving Harris County. There is no fee for the seminar. The Angelina County Extension Office is at 2201 S. Medford Drive.