Gardens Ablaze

Composting - Frequently Asked Questions
However small your garden, you must provide for two of the serious gardener's necessities, a tool shed and a compost heap.....Anne Scott-James

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What can be used in a compost pile?

Any organic yard material that is the result of cutting, shearing, trimming, weeding, raking, mowing or blowing.   Leaves, grass clippings, weeds, and pine straw are a few suggestions that come to mind.  Even branches and sticks from trimming hedges are fair game, as long as they are chopped into smaller pieces so that they will decompose in a reasonable amount of time.

How big should a compost pile be?

The recommended size for a home compost pile is a minimum of 3 to 4 feet wide by 3 to 4 feet tall.  It needs to be at least this size in order to adequately heat up in the middle. Obviously, it can be much bigger if you have a lot of yard waste.

Do you need some kind of structure for the compost pile?

Not unless you have a reason, such as aesthetics.  A structure can help to keep the heat in, thus decomposing the composting materials faster, and the pile does look better when contained in some way, but this is up to each individual, as composting can be successfully done with just a pile in an unobtrusive part of the yard.

How do you know when compost is finished?

Finished compost looks much like rich soil, and is dark and crumbly.  There will usually still be larger pieces in the finished product, but these can be sifted out and recomposted, if desired.  Otherwise they can be left in the mixture to decay naturally in the garden.

Should a compost pile have a top or cover on it?

In most cases, no.  However, if you want to manually control the moisture of the pile, using some sort of cover is acceptable.  If you have placed the pile in a partially shaded, well drained area, unusually wet seasons will not affect it significantly, and in very hot or dry situations, water can be added as needed.

Is it always necessary to turn a compost pile?

Certainly not.  Composting is done in nature with no interference whatsoever.  However, in the home gardening situation, turning the pile at regular intervals distributes the organic matter more evenly, thus promoting more rapid decomposition.  A pile that is never turned can take over a year to produce finished compost, compared to a pile that is turned frequently, which can produce the finished product in a matter of weeks.  It all depends on your particular needs and gardening goals.

Can I add kitchen scraps to the compost pile?

Please do!  Any organic kitchen waste, such as egg shells, vegetable scraps, fruit rinds, or coffee grounds are fair game for the compost heap.  Do avoid meat scraps and bones, or very oily waste, as these attract rodents and insects, and can cause the pile to emit foul odors.  

Can I add newspaper to the compost pile?

You certainly can.  Any newsprint other than the glossy ads will compost nicely.  The inks used, including colored inks, are non-toxic and safe for composting.  Indeed, newspaper is a good source of carbon when shredded and mixed with the other compost materials.   

Can fireplace ashes be added to the compost pile?

Yes, if used in moderation.  Fireplace ash does have some nutrients that are beneficial in the garden, but overuse of ashes in the compost has the potential to drastically raise the pH of the pile, which can prove detrimental when using the finished product.   

Can I use dog, cat, or human waste in the compost pile?

No, no, no.  Pet and human waste have the potential for carrying disease to the garden, especially the vegetable garden, so dispose of these wastes somewhere away from garden areas.

Do compost piles smell bad?

A properly maintained compost pile should have a pleasant, organic, earthy smell.  Under some conditions, however, odors do occur.  Lack of aeration, too much moisture, and high nitrogen content in the pile can all contribute to unpleasant odors.  Add dry, brown, woody material to the pile and mix thoroughly if it is emitting unpleasant odors.    

Will weeds and weed seeds survive the composting process?

In a properly maintained compost pile, the temperatures generated should kill most, if not all weeds and weed seeds.  Weeds with large roots, such as nutsedge should be dried out and chopped before being added, however.  This will reduce their chances of surviving the composting process.  Frequent turning of the pile will also help to ensure that weeds and weed seeds are not transferred into the garden in the finished product.

Can you use diseased plant material in the compost pile?  

As a general rule, yes.  The high temperatures generated in the composting process will kill most plant diseases.  A well managed compost pile is important in this case, however, and turning the pile frequently to evenly distribute the heat and composting materials is an important step in reducing the risk of transferring diseases into the rest of the garden.

Should fertilizer be added to the compost pile?

With a good mixture of brown and green plant materials in the compost pile, fertilizer should not be necessary.  However, if you have a lot of brown and very little green, a high nitrogen fertilizer can be used sparingly to help the decomposition process.



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