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Composting: The Glory of Gardening

How to take all that food waste and turn it into the good stuff your garden will gobble up.

They say once you purchase a computer, take it home and open the box it is already obsolete.  Technology moves at such a rapid rate that its difficult to keep up.  Take TVs, for example: in the early 2000s, plasma TVs were the latest TV technology and becoming hugely popular, and there was a new video format called HD DVD.  Now, in 2011, we have 3D flat screens and HD DVD is no longer, and has been replaced by Blue Ray. Who knows what will be in the next decade.

One thing we don’t have to worry about with regards to depreciation or becoming obsolete is growing your own vegetable garden.  If anything, as the garden its vegetables mature, it will appreciate in value and you will be able to enjoy the benefits of your labor.

As with any new venture, you’ll need to start with a solid base. When it comes to gardening, one of the most important items on your to-do-list should be a nice, dark and nutrient-rich soil bed.  Any garden center or hardware store can provide you with a bag of potting mix, but you can also make your own by composting.  

Composting is not a difficult task to tackle. Basically all that is needed is carbon, nitrogen and some water.  Items such as dried leaves and small twigs contain carbon. Nitrogen comes from fruit and vegetable scraps, grass clippings and coffee grounds.  Water adds the moisture necessary to break down all of the organic matter.  In order for all materials to break down into a dark mixture, an equal amount of carbon and nitrogen should be mixed.  Depending on the size of the matter being composted and the ratio of carbon to nitrogen, this process could take as little as a few months or as long as a few years.

Some of your household waste items that can be thrown into your compost pile are dryer lint, coffee filters, shredded newspaper, cotton rags, nutshells, cardboard, and wood chips. If you have a cow or horse, you can add their manure.

Not everything that is designated for the trash can be thrown into the compost pile. Some of the items you’d want to avoid are coal, meat, dairy, pet waste, lard and eggs (eggshells are okay).  These items may contain organisms that will eliminate some of the beneficial bacteria involved in the compost process, and may impede its progress as well.

There are also methods to increase the rate of composting, though. Providing adequate aeration helps with the breakdown of your compost pile, and providing heat will speed up the process.  The pile should have the consistency of a wet sponge that has been rung out.  Here on the coast, moisture isn’t a really a concern, but heat is.  Optimal temperature for a compost heap is said to be around 90 degrees Fahrenheit.  Churning the compost pile once every few days can yield a mixture that is ready in a month.

Many believe that a compost pile will smell and attract rodents or pests. This may happen if you add animal scraps, but if you avoid these items, your compost pile will not smell or attract any unwanted guests.  If you do begin to notice a rotten odor, your compost may be too moist and you should add shredded newspaper, dried leaves, or dried grass clippings.  If an odor is still present upon adding newspaper to your compost, try mixing, as a lack of oxygen can also cause a smell.

There are a multitude of advantages to composting.  Unless you produce zero waste, composting eliminates a significant amount of waste an average household will produce.  Simply put, you’re putting back into the soil what initially originated from the soil.  The soil mixture that is the product of compost will provide a well-balanced media from which to grow your vegetable garden.

Compost media is naturally balanced to allow the roots of the vegetable to uptake all necessary nutrients.  Much like our bodies,  if the soil pH (the measurement of acidity and alkalinity) is slightly askew, the plant will not have the ability to uptake the nutrients as they are tied up in the soil.  

Water retention is also another benefit of compost. Organic matter has a large capacity to hold water and to make it readily available for plants. Relatively speaking, a garden of a few tomato plants will not require much water. However, the larger the garden, the more water is required.  Did you know it can take as much as 120 gallons of water to produce one egg?

Now that you have this crumbly, dark organic mixture, you can use it in your vegetable garden or around shrubs and trees, or even on your lawn.  If you use the compost for your lawn, you’ll first want to aerate and then spread the compost. Eventually the compost will loosen the soil which will allow the roots go reach further down into the soil.  Healthier roots that run deeper in the soil will allow for less frequent irrigation.

As fast as technology moves, sometimes it's rewarding just to slow down and smell the roses.  Compost and gardening isn’t going to give you instant results, but with time you’ll be able to enjoy your efforts.  I bet the tomato you grew will taste 100 times better than what you could buy at the supermarket.  It will have much more flavor because the organic compost provided all the necessary nutrients and it was allowed to ripen on the vine.

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