Compost – The Black Gold

What Is Compost?

Compost is one of the most valuable resources for beautifying your landscape, and it is virtually free. The leaves you rake, the grass you mow, and the branches you trim are some of the ingredients you can use to make compost. Finished compost is dark and has a pleasant smell. It is produced when organic matter, such as garden, lawn, and kitchen waste, is broken down by bacteria and fungi.

Use it throughout your landscape – till it into gardens and flower beds, add it to the soil when renovating your lawn, Or sieve it and use it in potting soil.

Benefits of Composting

  • Compost improves the structure of soil.
  • With the addition of compost, sandy soils hold water better, and clay soils drain faster.
  • Compost reduces soil erosion and water run-off.
  • Plant roots penetrate compost-rich soil easier and hold the soil in place.
  • Water can run down into lower soil layers, rather than puddle on top of the ground and run off.
  • Compost provides food for earthworms, soil insects, and beneficial microorganisms.
  • Compost assists the soil in holding nutrients, thus lessening the need for chemical fertilizers and preventing the leaching of nitrogen into water.
  • Compost promotes healthy plants which are less susceptible to diseases and insect pests, reducing the need for pesticides.
  • Composting in your backyard recycles wastes which might otherwise fill up landfills.
  • Leaves, grass, and debris – often raked into the street for collection – tend to clog storm drains and street gutters and are costly to collect, but make excellent compost materials.

Why Make Compost?

Virginia is rapidly running out of landfill space. Consequently, we must make our old landfills last longer. One way to do this is to compost yard and kitchen wastes, which comprise an estimated 20 percent of the refuse going into our landfills. Homeowners who compost not only extend the lives of our landfills, but also reduce costs for collecting organic debris. Also, composting recycles waste to create valuable soil amendment.

Keys to Good Composting

  • The carbon/nitrogen ratio: A mixture of dry leaves, sawdust, or other sources of carbon combined with manure, green plants, or fertilizer for nitrogen (approximately 4:1 by volume).
  • The presence of microorganisms: A few shovels full of rich garden soil or compost will supply these.
  • The moisture level: The pile should have the moisture of a well-squeezed sponge. Add water as needed.
  • The oxygen level: A compost pile should be turned periodically to promote decay of its contents. Turning the pile adds oxygen, so the more you turn it, the faster it breaks down. (Turning heavy, rotting leaves and grass is vigorous exercise!)
  • The particle size: The finer the particle size, the more surface there is for microorganisms to work. Shredding leaves and larger materials generates compost faster.

What happens to plants as they age

  • Young plants, like early spring grasses, are succulent and juicy, with higher sugar content and lots of nitrogen. In a compost pile, they break down very quickly and act as accelerants to increase bacterial populations and build compost heat rapidly.
  • As plants grow and start to form stalks, complex starches are synthesized to fuel long-term plant growth. In a compost pile, they take longer to break down than simple sugars, but release more energy into the pile when they do, increasing compost heat in the pile.
  • Like people, plants stiffen with time. They stiffen by adding cellulose and lignins to their stems, giving the plants the rigidity they need to support branches and a growing canopy of leaves, flowers, and eventually, fruit.

What Not to Compost

Some compost ingredients in the list below can be composted, but the proportions must be managed carefully and they need to be composted thoroughly in a hot compost pile.

In considering what to compost, beginners, especially, should avoid the following materials:

  • “Xenobiotic” materials: plastic, metal, glass, anything inorganic that won’t break down.
  • Poisonous plants like oleander.
  • Poison ivy, poison oak.
  • Excessive amounts of aromatic leaves, like eucalyptus or rosemary. These give off allelopathic chemicals that inhibit plant growth.
  • Dog and cat feces, litter box materials. May contain nasty parasites like Toxocara canis, a nematode transmitted by dog feces that infects muscles and the retina of the eye, and can persist in the garden for years. Toxoplasmosis, infection with the parasiteToxoplasma gandii can result from contact with cat feces or litter box materials. It often has no symptoms, but can lead to muscle aches and fatigue in immune-compromised people. It can also be transmitted from mother to fetus. It’s best not to introduce parasites shared by pets and humans into the garden, especially when they’re persistent and hard to eradicate.
  • Meat scraps. May attract rodents and breed flies.
  • Grease and fat. Same as above.
  • Excessive dairy waste. Same as above.
  • Excessive salty materials or pickles. Can inhibit breakdown in the compost pile and increase sodium levels of finished compost.
  • Wood ashes. Strongly alkaline materials result in nitrogen losses from compost piles. (Small amounts can be good additions to soil, just don’t add them to compost piles.)
  • Walnut leaves, twigs, and seed husks. These release jugones, allelopathic chemicals that inhibit plant growth and are toxic to tomatoes.
  • Diseased plants. Uneven compost heat may result in the spread of plant diseases.

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