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Backyard Composting

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May 4-10, 2008 is International Compost Awareness Week. In honor of this event and in order to bring the subject of compost to your attention, Master Gardeners would like to rerun a column written in 2004 by Carolee James, past-President of the Tuolumne County UCCE Master Gardeners:

Composting is the natural process of decomposing and recycling organic material into humus-rich soil amendment. Mother Nature has been making compost for centuries. Just take a stroll through any uncultivated forest or meadow. The heady perfume of rich soil underfoot can be intoxicating! Reach down and scrape away the top layer of litter. Underneath, you will find the most wonderful, rich humus containing beneficial micro- and macro-organisms (bacteria, fungi, microbes, earthworms, and insects) nourishing the trees and plants.

You can provide your garden with the same wonderful soil by making and using compost, at the same time recycling your yard waste and eliminating the need to haul it away. Some of the benefits of compost are: it increases organic matter in soils, builds sound root structure, makes clay soils airy so they drain, gives sandy soils body to hold moisture, attracts and feeds earthworms, balances pH (acidity/alkalinity) of soil, reduces water demands, controls soil erosion, reduces plant stress from drought and freezing, improves vitamin and mineral content in food grown in compost-rich soils, and, when generously applied, replaces reliance upon petrochemical fertilizers.

Composting is simple and easy. Think of it like cooking your favorite recipe. Just like a good cook, composters have their own variations to a basic recipe for “cooking” the perfect compost. However, all compost materials fall into one of two categories: “browns” or “greens.” Browns are dry materials such as wood chips, dried leaves, dry grass and other dead plants, and shredded newspaper. Greens are fresh, moist materials such as grass cuttings, green weeds and leaves, plant trimmings, vegetative kitchen scraps (including coffee grounds with the filters and teabags), and manures.

Here is a basic Compost Recipe:

1. Collect as much brown and green material as possible to start your compost pile. An ideal size is 3´x4´ square. The larger the pile the more rapidly it decomposes due to the higher heat generated.

2. Place equal amounts of browns and greens in a heap right on the ground. Cover food scraps with other compost materials. By having a balance of wet and dry materials, compost piles generate high temperatures and slowly simmer to create compost. Do not add plants infected with insects or diseases, meat, fats, grease, or dog or cat wastes into your compost pile. Weeds that have seeds will need to be in a compost pile where a temperature of 140-150 degrees can be maintained for several days in order to kill the seeds.

3. Water to maintain an even dampness like that of a wrung-out sponge.

4. As if by magic, once the pile has been built, the micro and macro-organisms will move in to help with decomposition and add to the richness of the compost.

For Quick Compost: 1-3 months

Chop materials into smaller pieces

Alternate 3″ to 6″ layers of browns and greens

Mix the pile by turning and stirring. Frequent turning is only necessary if you want to speed the decomposition process, as turning increases the oxygen flow and blends materials.

Slower Compost: 3-6 months plus

Just keep adding materials to the pile and water after each addition to keep the pile moist.


Odors, or too wet? Turn and add brown material

Dry pile? Add water, greens and mix.

When compost is ready, it is a dark brown or black, crumbly, humus-rich material with the sweet aroma of good earth. It is “done” when you can no longer identify the parent materials that went into it originally. Use it as an amendment mixed into your soil or as mulch on top of your flower and vegetable beds, and around trees and shrubs.

Remember, compost feeds the soil and the soil feeds us. By composting, we reap the benefits—a more beautiful yard and a reduction in water and fertilizer bills.

For more comprehensive information on composting (site location, use of composting bins, and detailed recipes), stop by the UC Cooperative Extension office at 52 N. Washington St., Sonora and pick up materials on this subject. Also, please visit the Tuolumne County UCCE Master Gardener demonstration garden “Open Garden Day” on the first Saturday of each month for a composting demonstration. The demonstration garden is located at 251 S. Barretta Street, Sonora, on the campus of the Cassina High “Dome.”

Carolee James has been a Master Gardener for several years. She gardens on three acres in Tuolumne and collects specimen Japanese maple trees.