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  • Ann Bennett

A Recipe for Compost

"It's ridiculous how esoteric people make compost out to be," remarked Tom Earle, who says he was "up to my ears in the stuff" during his time at Findhorn. "The point is that there's a compost heap for everyone, and everyone has the ingredients. It's simply a matter of taking advantage of what's on hand."

Making compost is not a complicated process, although it symbolizes the cycles of renewal, death and rebuilding present everywhere in your garden. By putting together and tending the composting cycle, and adding the results to your garden, you replace nutrients and microorganisms essential to balanced, healthy soil and plant growth.

Composting has been practiced by farmers in all parts of the world for thousands of years, but one of the first men to create s sophisticated method was Sir Albert Howard, an English agricultural scientist who worked in India half a century ago. Out of his efforts and dedication evolved many concepts basic to the techniques of modern organic gardening.

The bacteria action that occurs during composting is simply an accelerated process of decay. A properly made compost heap creates an environment in which decay-causing microorganisms can live and reproduce at the highest rate of activity. As a result, fresh manure, garden and household wastes, leaves and other materials are converted into humus. A byproduct of this process is considerable heat, sometimes approaching 150 degrees at the center of the pile.

Every gardener can and should take advantage of the composting cycle. A variety of containers can be utilized, and just about any combination of organic refuse, household wastes, grass clippings or weeds. First, choose s spot for your compost pile. It should be out of the way, in that it will be at least several weeks before the compost is usable, but also convenient to the garden,house and other sources of organic materials.

"The key to putting together a compost pile is in mixing plenty of hot materials - those with lots of inherent nitrogen (such as manure) - with carbon materials, or those like hay or sawdust, which are slow to break down," Tom noted. "It is a mistake to think you can just heap anything together and have compost."

Sir Albert Howard's recipe is the classic model, one that can easily be adapted according to what you have on hand. First, place a pile of brush on the ground to provide a base. Then build the pile in layers, first using a six inch layer of green matter, like grass clippings or weeds. Next is a two inch layer of manure or other high nitrogen material, which is in turn sprinkled with sifted soil and ground limestone. The layers are repeated until the pile is five feet high. It is then turned periodically to allow air to penetrate to all parts of the heap, and in several months the finished product can be spread on the garden.

The compost pile has several inherent needs. Moisture for instance, has an important influence on bacteria activity. A soggy heap will smother the organisms at work, so many composters cover their heap with plastic sheeting to control the moisture content and prevent leaching. On the other hand, a certain amount of water is necessary, and the layers should be sprayed when you first build the pile.

Ventilation is also essential, and if the compost is too matted down, aeration will be impeded. Turning the pile periodically is important, but another idea is to leave an airspace at the base of the compost Tom ensures aeration by placing a 6-inch plastic pipe vertically into the base of the pile.

The rate of decomposition of composed materials is greatly increased if they are ground or broken up beforehand. Cutting or chopping in some way is a major element to high speed composting. By breaking up the bulky, coarse or solid wastes, a much greater surface area is exposed to bacterial action. Heating is accelerated, and decomposition into humus accomplished more quickly. Mechanical shredders are the most expedient means of grinding the materials, though a power mower will do an acceptable job on grass, hay and weeds.

A wide variety of containers can be used for compost, depending entirely on the size desired and materials. A wood framed, chicken wire enclosure is effective, since it allows for aeration, while keeping animals out of the pile (especially important if you plan to include kitchen refuse). Tom mentioned that a fiend had recently constructed a compost bin out of logs, with excellent results, and also recommended pallets. Concrete blocks or bricks create a sturdy, more permanent compost bin, allowing for good ventilation if spaced evenly. Another compost or leaf mold maker consists of several fence posted in the form of a circle, surrounded by chicken wire or snow fence. Even a wooden box, barrel or garbage can with holes poked in it is a possibility if space is a problem.

Within a few days after you've layered the heap, it will begin to heat up, and the high temperatures will quickly cook the smell out of manure or garbage. In the process, the nitrogen content will be increased significantly. Microorganisms burn off much of the carbon present, reducing the bulk of the heap while at the same time correspondingly increasing its nitrogen.

While this bacteria is present naturally, some people, Tom among them, sometimes add a "biodynamic" compost started when they layer their heap. Basically, this is dehydrated compost that is activated with water. "It's a means of introducing an intense population of microorganisms," he explained, "and of guaranteeing their presence."

But again, there is no precise formula or secret to making compost. Simply organize your materials, find a container and get started. the end result will be a rich, dark humus - all part of a natural cycle, which transforms wastes into an invaluable soil conditioner.

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