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After Dark

Making compost is easy and satisfying

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By Christine Wen

Making your own compost is an easy, practical and satisfying way to make use of yard waste and table scraps. Home composting can reduce the use of water and synthetic fertilizers while improving the health of your soil and plants. For homeowners living in areas where laws and ordinances limit or prohibit the disposal of leaves and yard clippings into landfills, composting is a sensible alternative.

Compost is a humus-rich organic soil amendment that contains nutrients essential for plant growth. These nutrients are a result of the microbial decomposition of biodegradable materials — food scraps, paper materials, yard waste — that have been piled, mixed and moistened.

Interested in composting? Start by choosing a site that is convenient and receives about five to eight hours of sun. Let’s face it — the more convenient the compost pile is to get to, the more likely adding materials will become a habit rather than a chore. Decide if you will keep your compost in a pile, a simple bin made out of wood or chicken wire, or a manufactured compost unit. Lids are not necessary, but they can prevent nuisance animals from getting into the compost. The pile should be at least 3 x 3 x 3 feet in size to heat up properly.

Begin composting by adding materials such as leaves, garden debris, eggshells, chopped or shredded branches, grass clippings, vegetable and fruit scraps, and coffee grounds. Microorganisms in compost will feed on these organic materials for energy, using air and water through a process called aerobic respiration. Microorganisms metabolize best with a diet of two parts brown materials to one part green. Having the proper ratio of ingredients will increase the rate of decomposition.

Once the pile is created, decomposition begins and the microorganism population expands quickly. Jumpstart the process by adding a shovel full of garden soil, which typically includes thousands of naturally occurring microorganisms. Watch for soil animals such as earthworms, sow bugs, ground beetles and springtails, all of which play a role in decomposition.

Mature compost has reached an internal temperature of 105 degrees Fahrenheit or higher for five consecutive days; the temperature should exceed 130 degrees F for four hours to eliminate weed seeds, insect eggs and diseases. (This can be measured with a compost thermometer.) Once the pile has reached maximum temperatures, the pile will need to be turned. Mixing or turning the pile every week or so introduces new food sources and increases air circulation to the microorganisms working in the warmer central portion of the pile.

Microorganisms also need moisture; consider adding water during dry times or when you add new materials — the compost pile should feel as damp as a wrung-out sponge.

Once all the available organic materials are broken down, the pile enters the curing stage. At this stage most of the materials are broken down into compost that is ready to be used in the garden. Compost should be ready to use in about four to five months when the pile is properly maintained.

Compost has many uses in the landscape. In ornamental and vegetable gardens, use compost just as you would bark or other mulch; apply a 2-to 3-inch layer between plants, shrubs and trees, keeping it about 1 to 2 inches away from tree trunks and shrub and plant stems. It can also be used as top dressing to improve lawn areas. Do not add compost when planting a tree, as this can cause root restriction — always backfill with the original soil you removed from the hole.

No matter how you compost or what you do with it, the important thing to remember is that your efforts are benefiting your soil and plants and keeping reusable yard waste and food scraps out of the landfill.

Christine Wen

is the horticulture educator for the Walworth County UW-Extension. Call her at 262-741-4958 or email In Racine County, contact Patti Nagai at 886-8451, and in Kenosha County contact Barb Larson at 857-1942 .