Many of us are readying our garden beds for planting. Old soil, depleted by last year’s plants, needs amendments to sustain this year’s growth, while new planting beds should be filled with soil fortified by compost and other nutrients.
Composting – the age-old practice of converting kitchen scraps into better soil – helps eliminate the amount of waste you create and can be done at home through several processes.
When you compost, it provides nutrients for plants as well as improving water management in the soil – meaning clay rich soil will benefit from mixing in compost so it doesn’t clump, while sandy soil will benefit by becoming more water retentive. Organic matter, partly broken down in the process of composting, will make micronutrients, macronutrients, as well as vitamins available for new growth. The ingredients you toss into the compost will dictate the resulting nutrient composition.
Compost is also available commercially and sold in bags by many garden stores, and home-improvement stores. Making an effort to get organic compost will ensure lack of herbicides that may prevent the new plants from growing. Local garden centers such as Garland Nursery, will often have compost in bulk available.
Weston Miller, Oregon State University Extension Service horticulturist, recommends an addition of 3-4 inches of compost to the top of new soil, while addition of a quarter to a full inch each spring to the existing bed will suffice. Mixing the compost with soil to the depth of about 8 to 12 inches can be accomplished with spades, forks and rototillers.
Similarly for lawns, Miller recommends a 1-2-inch-deep layer of compost worked into the soil for new lawns, while for established lawns a quarter of inch yearly amendment is sufficient.
The easiest method of composting is direct composting where you deposit vegetable scraps, yard debris and other vegetation directly into the ground. It’s important to remember that there should be no dairy, human sludge, pet waste, bones, or fatty foods in the compost pile.
This can be as simple as digging a ditch, dropping in your compostables, and covering them up with the original dirt. This is mostly anaerobic composting, because the microorganisms at work largely depend on available nitrogen, not so much on oxygen.
Composting in a pile or bin above the ground or in a tumbler, which is an aerobic decomposition and depends heavily on aeration of the organic matter. That means the pile needs to be turned over with a pitchfork or shovel every few days – or if a tumbler with aeration holes is used it requires turning once every day or two.
The same content restrictions apply to aerobic composting as to direct composting; however, herbivore manure, eggshells, and feathers can be added.
It should be mentioned that while matter used may be too acidic (saw dust) or too caustic (ash, lime) or too slow to decompose, they can partake in the process but with special management such as chopping finely, or layering. Special instructions also apply to grass clippings containing chemicals. Better Home Steading is a good source of information.
Composting of greens (vegetable scraps, fresh grass clippings) and browns (twigs, finely chopped branches, dried leaves or dry grass clippings) will take 4-6 months to decompose unless the slow decomposing items are added. A ratio of green to brown matter should be about 1:30 by volume, according to ReadyToDIY.
Anaerobic decomposition – or fermentation, if you will – is called the Bokashi method of composting. This method combines bacteria and fungi as working organisms is to produce lactic acid – like the one present is sore muscles. Bokashi, which is found in gardening stores, contains wheat bran infused with bacteria to assist decomposition. The benefit of the Bokashi additive is that the “rotten egg” or Sulphur smell is not part of the experience.
The Bokashi method is particularly easy for those with little garden space, because the bin with a spout at the bottom can sit on the kitchen counter. Add daily kitchen scraps of a wide variety (including finely chopped all animal products), sprinkling them with dry Bokashi preparation, tamping them down to minimize oxygenation, and finally covering the bin with a tightly fit lid.
The fermentation will produce a cake of decomposing matter and a liquid byproduct, called Bokashi tea. It will have a slight pleasant smell and white fungal mycelia will appear to grow within the tamped cake.
Make sure that the adequate amount of bran with microbes is added with each daily food scraps. Bokashi tea can be tapped off daily and diluted to about one tablespoon per two cups of water to use for fertilizing plants. It will contain Enzymes, amino acids, vitamins, trace minerals, organic acids and some plant hormones.
Undiluted Bokashi tea can also be used to unclog drains or to clear algae overgrow in a pond.
At the end of the fermentation process, which will last 7-14 days, the cake should be broken into pieces and buried in the soil for final decomposition and absorption of the nutrients.
Other Soil Additives
Fertilizers are commercially available, and often specifically formulated for particular groups of plants according to their needs. The common additives for soil are represented on the bags in which you buy them with N for nitrogen, P for phosphorus, and K for potassium — the most common macronutrients necessary for plants to thrive. They are used if the acidity of soil needs to be regulated for specific plants. Most plants thrive in pH=6 to pH=7 conditions which is slightly acidic to neutral.
Many Oregonians grow blueberries, azaleas, and rhododendrons, which require more acidic soil than most. Humic acid may need to be added to soil. This is a product of the breakdown of organic matter and helps with acidity regulation. Additionally, topdressing the soil around these plants with saw dust will help.
If in doubt of the soil needs, test the acidity of the soil with commercially available pH test kits. The OSU extension services can provide more detailed information.
Another approach to improve the soil is application of earthworm poop, commercially called earthworm casting.
According to Better Homesteading: “Water soluble plant nutrients such as copper, zinc, manganese, borax, iron, magnesium, potassium and calcium, just to name a few, are all found in worm casts. These essential nutrients are often not found in depleted soil, even in your garden.”
Worm Castings are easy-to-handle soil amendment and, like compost, are to be mixed with the top part of the soil. But having an earthworm farm at home can be enjoyable as well.
Creating your own worm farm can make nutrient rich earth available to you year-round. The slower release of worm castings throughout the year can nourish plants for longer periods, as well as increasing the moisture retention of soil. Worms facilitate soil aeration, and help remove toxins and harmful bacteria while acting as a buffer against high or low soil ph.
How to Compost
To learn how to begin your own composting, read up on what to include and not include, as well as how to get worms and take care of them. And remember, composting will help in lowering your overall waste, which is better for the whole world.