Composting 101: How it Works

Most gardeners are vaguely familiar with the concept of composting, but what is it? How does it to help your plants?

When a plant dies it decays where it falls. As it decays, it breaks down into basic nutrients and other plants use those nutrients. Essentially, composting breaks down those same organic materials in a way that provides maximum nutrients for the soil.

Compost is made up of two types of materials. “Green” materials tend to be fresh and rich in nitrogen. This category includes things like plant clippings, food waste, and manure. “Brown” materials are rich in carbon and include things such as wood chips, pine needles, and dry leaves. By mixing the two under the proper conditions, gardeners create a situation in which microorganisms go to work breaking down the waste. When there is no more to break down, what’s left is a rich, dark material called humus.

Humus works to improve the soil by stabilizing its structure, increasing its ability to retain moisture, and creating an environment in which organisms helpful to your plants can thrive.

Although a lot of scientific processes are at work, composting is a relatively simple thing to do at home. There are a multitude of bins that can be built or purchased and placed in a discreet corner of the yard. Many chose to forgo the bin entirely, opting for a compost pile instead. Whichever route you take, all you really need to do is introduce the “green” materials to the “brown” materials at a ratio of 25:1 or 30:1. If you have too much “green” in your pile, it will start to stink, too much “brown” and it will just be a pile of garbage. Either one of these things will probably not be appreciated by your neighbors, so take care to avoid it. Getting the balance right is the hardest part of composting, and it’s not that hard. Nature will do the rest.

In the end, when your compost heap has become thick, crumbly, dark matter that bears no resemblance to the stuff it used to be, you have humus. Spread it over your plants evenly, about 1 to 2 inches thick and then sit back and enjoy the results. Your compost pile will supercharge your garden by creating rich soil in which your plants can thrive.

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