Composting Steve Chaney. Texas AgriLife Extension Service Tarrant County
If you want to have a healthy, productive landscape the first key is to build great soil. Many gardeners make the mistake of looking first to fertilizers, tonics, or a multitude of miracle working concoctions to produce great plant. There is no long-term substitute for proper soil building. If your soil is poorly drained, too acidic or alkaline, compacted, low in organic matter or has poor structural characteristics, it doesn’t matter how much fertilizer you add, the results will be disappointing.
Build your soil first and then fertilizers can play their proper role in promoting plant health and production. Fertilizers are most effective when used to fine tune a soil situation that is already working relatively well. Healthy soil grows healthy, productive plants and is the place where any great landscape begins. Start by adding compost to improve the soil’s structure, internal drainage and water holding ability. It stimulates soil microbes and breaks down to feed plants gradually over time. If drainage is at all in question, build raised planting beds to insure that plant roots don’t sit in soggy wet conditions.
Organic fertilizers can be an integral part of a good soil building program for your garden and landscape. Along with compost additions and soil testing they provide the basis for a healthy productive landscape. While some organic fertilizers provide a quick fix, similar to the way synthetic products can, most are for a long-term solution. The goal is to build soil that needs few additional inputs rather than soil dependent on a continual series of “quick fixes”. Gardeners who want to garden naturally are willing to build their gardens over time recognize the value in such an approach. They will enjoy the benefits for years to come in terms of great soil, healthy plants, and productive gardens.
Types of Natural Fertilizers • Alfalfa Meal - 3% Nitrogen • Blood Meal - 12 % Nitrogen • Bone Meal - 12% Phosphate • Corn Gluten Meal - 10% Nitrogen • Cottonseed Meal - 6 % Nitrogen • Feather Meal - 12% Nitrogen (slow release) • Fish Meal - 10 % Nitrogen • Fish Emulsion - 5% Nitrogen • Greensand - 5% Potash (slow release) • Kelp Meal - 1% Nitrogen • Gypsum - 0 % Nitrogen ( calcium and sulfur) • Lime - 0% Nitrogen ( calcium) • Soft Rock Phosphate - 30% Phosphate ( very slow release) • Potassium Magnesium Sulfate - 22% Potash , 18% Mg , 27% Sulfur
Forest Floor Nature recycles leaves and plants. In a forest, leaves fall forming mulch that protects the soil. Over time they decompose into nutrients that feed forest plants.
Compost • Broken down (decomposed) organic matter • A soil enrichment product
Composting Benefits • Improve Your Soil Quality • Moisture retention • Increased aeration • Reduce erosion potential
Composting Benefits • Improve your Soil Texture • Clay soils • Easier to work • Helps drainage • Sandy soils • Prevents nutrient and water losses
Composting Benefits • Save on your gardening bills • Soil amendment savings • Water use savings • Yard waste disposal costs
Home Composting Benefits • Helps Our Environment • 30% of waste stream is organic material • Pro-active alternative to land-filling and incineration of organic waste
What’s Happening in the Pile? • Organic matter is decomposed by living creatures • Starting materials converted to ‘less complex’ forms • It becomes “unrecognizable” humus
Microscopic Decomposers • Chemically convert organic materials • Mostly single-celled organisms • Bacteria considered most productive • Fungi • Actinomycetes • Protozoa • Rotifers
Physical Decomposers • Arrive in the pile after lower level decomposers have ‘worked’ material • Grind and chew remaining organic material • mites, snails, slugs,earthworms, millipedes, sowbugs, whiteworms
Organic Matter Decomposition • 2 Basic Processes • Aerobic Break-down • Anaerobic Break-down
Aerobic Decomposition • Organisms require more than 5% oxygen • Occurs in nature (leaf litter on forest floor) • Community of decomposers affected by: • Aeration • Moisture • Organic materials used • Temperature
Anerobic Decomposition • Organisms utilize less than 5% oxygen • Occurs in nature (Marshes, mud flats) • Production of Methane gas • Associated with ‘bad’ odors
Required: Oxygen (Aeration) • Home composting should be ‘Aerobic’ • Aerobic composting is up to 90% faster than Anaerobic composting • Anaerobic odor emissions are avoided
Goal: Achieve High Temps Importance of High Temperature • Pathogen kill • (Harmful bacteria, etc.) • Weed seed kill • Pest control • (Flies, plant parasitic Nematodes) • Checking temp with a compost thermometer
The Composter’s Role: • The Home Composter is responsible for making a suitable “living” environment for beneficial decomposers. • Pile size • Aeration • Weather • Moisture • Particle size • Carbon:Nitrogen ratio
Sizing a Compost Pile • To reach higher temperatures needed: • 4’ x 4’ x 5’ (L x W x H) • 3’ x 3’ x 4’ (Minimum Size) • Too small of Pile Size • Decomposition slows • Temperatures remain low
Moisture Maintenance • Moistening piles • Decomposers need water to maintain their activity • Place pile close to water source • Apply moisture to 55-65% • Squeeze test
Working with Weather • Protecting piles • Excess rain leads to anaerobic decomposition • Cool temps slow decomposition • Wind may cool pile • Avoid potential nutrient leaching
Achieving Aeration • Turning piles • Introduces oxygen to pile organisms • Hastens decomposition • Set a schedule that works for you
Good Compost Materials • Grass clippings • Leaves • Farm manure • Yard clippings • Vegetable scraps • Sod, Hay • Non-noxious weeds • Sawdust • Garden residue
Bad Compost Materials • Pig and pet manures • Meat scraps • Fats or oils • Diseased plants • Noxious & perennial weeds • Recently fungicide-treated plants (within a month)
Selecting Compost Materials • Decomposers need Nitrogen to break-down Carbon materials for use as their energy source.
Influence of C : N Ratio • Optimum decomposition occurs when “Starting” mixture ratio is 30:1
High C : N Leaves 50:1 Corn stalks 60:1 Straw 80:1 Pine Needles 90:1 Sawdust 300:1 Selecting Compost Materials • Low C : N • Alfalfa hay 18:1 • Grass clippings 19:1 • Rotted manure 20:1 • Oak leaves 25:1 • Vegetables 26:1
Influence of LOW C : N Ratio ‘Mostly Grass’ • Initially • Organism populations skyrocket • Fast temperature increase • Fast decomposition • Later • O2 and N depleted • Odors • Temperature decrease
Influence of HIGH C : N Ratio ‘Mostly Straw’ • Effects • Low temperatures • Slow organism population growth • Slow decomposition • Material looks the same after 3 weeks
Other Considerations • Turning piles • Need pitchfork • Rebuild pile next to old pile • Old top, becomes new bottom • Old outside; new middle • Add moisture to 55-65%
Other Considerations • Layering method • 1 layer of hay, 1 layer of grass, repeat • Pre-mixing method • Mix materials before piling it • Alternate fork method • 1 fork full of hay, 1 fork full of grass, repeat
Using Finished Compost • Compost Value • Use as a soil amendment • Apply in tandem with other fertilizer sources
Use Compost in Potting Soil • Container mix (fertilize as necessary) • 1 gallon vermiculite • 1 gallon compost ( matured) • 1 T single super phosphate - ground • 2 T limestone or dolomite • 4 T dried manure or blood meal or cottonseed meal
The Living Soil By Mike Shoup - Antique Rose Emporium The development and maintenance of a good garden is dependent on the management of the soil. Roses old and new do best in a well prepared bed incorporated with lots of organic matter. It is rare to see our native forests in a state of starvation. Mother Nature has ensured that these plants grow and stay green without the aid of man’s synthetic fertilizers. The constant decomposition of leaf litter, dead branches, and bark that falls to the ground in these areas provide nutrition.
The gardener would do well if he could mimic this program in his landscape. Good results have been achieved using the following guidelines. Mixing 3 inches of decomposed organic matter like composted leaves or manure into 6 to 8 inches of soil. Roses and perennials should be planted in this mixture and mulched with 3 inches of coarser material like hardwood bark. Mulch will slowly decompose, providing a continual source of food for fungi and bacteria, creating a living and nutritive soil. The addition of more mulch biannually insures the continuation of this process. The advantages , besides not having to apply synthetic fertilizers, are numerous. Beds retain moisture, the pH of the soil is buffered, weeds are kept at bay, soil temperatures fluctuate less, and the appearance is better.
Composting The End