My father didn't have fairies at the bottom of the garden; he had a compost pile. That pile of stuff was a mystery to me, but my father tended it well. He made regular visits and kept piling things from the garden onto it, and after a while, that pile of stuff turned into dirt, which he put back on his garden and flowerbeds. Now that I too am a gardener, I have come to appreciate how valuable that simple pile of stuff really is. The finished product is rich in nutrients, the oldest and best soil treatment around.
Composting makes sense for the environment. We can reduce the amount of household and garden waste we put into the trash. Composting is a continuous natural process, the biological reduction of organic wastes to humus. It happens everywhere that plants grow; leaves on the ground in the forest eventually turn into humus. As gardeners, we can help that process along.
We can make a pile of grass clippings, leaves, and other garden wastes, keep it moist, and turn it occasionally until it decomposes. We can build or buy a container-wooden or plastic, tumbler or box. One word of warning about those efficient tumblers, though, is that if you fill them too full, you can't turn them. I have gone back to my chicken wire container.
Living microorganisms (fungi and bacteria) accomplish the process of decomposition. These microorganisms needs a balanced mix of raw organic materials: carbon-energy source (leaves, woody stems, straw, shredded paper), nitrogen-protein source (green vegetable matter, table scraps (but not meat), just enough water to keep the materials moist but not dripping water, and oxygen. As a rule of thumb, it takes a ratio of 30 parts carbon to one part nitrogen.
Another option is hot composting. You will need at least a 3x3x3-foot container with materials such as sticks or a pallet on the bottom to allow air circulation. Add alternating layers, about 6" each, of organic nitrogen and carbon materials along with water. Stir, cover, and leave to cook, with an internal temperature of 160 degrees F. required.
Obviously there is much more information thn I can cover in a brief article, and I would encourage you to find a good book, go on-line, and/or contact your local Texas Cooperative Extension office, and learn more about the art and science of composting.
Please give composting and recycling a try. You will be amazed how much volume you can eliminate from the trash bin just by building a compost pile and by taking your recyclable plastic, glass, etc., to the nearest recycling center.
Ann Kelley, Smith County Master Gardener
Texas AgriLife Extension Service
One often overlooked aspect of gardening is the failure to incorporate compost into your soil prior to planting. Compost is an extremely important ingredient to plants overall well being. Compost works well with all plants whether you are planting vegetables, annuals or perennials into a garden.
When incorporating compost into the soil, mix at least 1 inch of compost, preferably more, into your soil at a depth of 4 inches to 6 inches. This will allow the compost to be in the root zone of your plants. The benefits of compost mixed into the garden soil are too numerous to mention but some of the main benefits are: it provides nutrients vital to plant health; it helps retain moisture in the plant's root zone; it helps protect plants from disease by maintaining healthy plants; it helps decrease soil compaction which will allow plant roots to grow easier and it helps to contribute to good overall soil structure. There are many more reasons to work compost into the soil because a healthy soil will grow healthy plants.
Adding compost to your soil works equally well in heavy clay soils as well as sandy soils. In clay soils, adding expanded shale along with the compost will give it a double benefit as the shale will help break up the clay. Your plants will love it and you will be rewarded with healthy, happy plants in your garden.
Charlie Colman, Smith County Master Gardener
Texas AgriLife Extension Service