Up North here in Zone 4, Easter is now behind us and the spring job of getting the garden ready for the planting season is next. I want to encourage you before you start your spring yard and garden clean up to get your compost pile started. I just cringe when I see the amount of composting materials that are placed on the boulevard in the cities and small towns when "Spring Clean-Up Week" comes to be. Why throw away this valuable material when it is so beneficial to us as gardeners.
There is a simple, nutrient rich material right here at our finger tips, it is so simple that we just don't notice what we have. Generations of gardeners have always known a simple fact, a fertile soil is the key to growing vegetables, and compost is the key component of a fertile, rich soil. As we follow the method that Mel Bartholomew uses in the square foot garden, the only thing that we need to add to an already established nutrient rich Mel's Mix is an occasional scoop of compost.
Compost is not a magical process whose secret is available only to the scientists and chemists . It is not that difficult, in fact you could say "Compost Happens". Even if we do nothing more than pile our compost ingredients on the ground in a heap and do nothing more than that, in a few years we will have a very rich and nutrient filled material, what we want to do as gardeners is speed along the process.
There are two ways in which compost or what is more appropriately defined as "decomposition of organic materials" happens. One is aerobic decomposition and the other is anaerobic decomposition. Let's talk about each and the benefits and drawbacks of each.
Aerobic decomposition in laymen terms is rotting of organic materials in the presence of oxygen. Aerobic decomposition is very efficient and quite quick in terms of time. As the materials start to break down, the materials start giving off heat and as long as there is oxygen available this heating process continues until all of the energy that was stored up in the material has been spent. As I said, this is a very efficient way to encourage and quicken the composting process. We can even speed this up more by keeping a supply of water availible to keep the pile or heap damp and by mixing the pile frequently to ensure that fresh energy rich materials are introduced to the decomposition process. A good healthy aerobic decomposing compost pile will not give off offensive odors, but more of a rich earthy smell.
Anaerobic decomposition is what is done in the absence of oxygen, this is sometimes known as putrefaction. This is a very inefficient process that is slow and very odorous. You will find this material to be a rotting, slimy, stinky and unappealing sludge that no one would want on or near your home or for that matter on or near your vegetables that you would like to eat.
Sometimes, a unproperly managed compost heap will go through a stage where anaerobic decomposition will occur. As soon as a compost pile starts to stink, be aware that you have been put on notice by Mother Nature that your compost pile is either too wet, or too much "green" material, or just all out in need of a good mixing or turning over of the pile.
No matter which way your materials decompose, eventually even the worst maintained pile will stop stinking and the remnants will be nothing more than a rich , nutrient filled, magical garden soil enhancing material that will feed your plants to healthy maturity unlike any other synthetic compound is able to do.
Don't throw your garden and yard waste to the streets this spring but assign it to greater duties of becoming compost, God's gift to the gardener.
Later we will talk about a good way to manage a compost pile that will provide you the magic nutrients all the while keeping you from being banished from your neighbors Christmas card list.