Compost is the stuff of great gardens, the stuff that fuels dinner-plate-size heads of broccoli and traffic-stopping dahlias.
Compost is also good for trees, shrubs and lawns, making plants happier by keeping the soil around their roots moister and more nutritionally balanced.
The odd thing is that compost is also something that gardeners sometimes skimp on.
Most of us have more than enough materials to create all the compost our hearts and plants could desire. After all, compost is essentially what's left when organic materials — anything that is or was living — decomposes. Look around and see how many organic materials just get thrown away.
Compost Ingredients Galore
Bags and bags of fallen leaves sitting at curbs and along driveways make this wastage all the more evident this time of year.
And what about garbage bags filled with old plants cleared from the garden, houseplants and grass clippings?
There’s no reason to relegate them to burial in plastic bags in a landfill. They’re fine for compost.
Going a step further into the world of “garbage:” Vegetable trimmings, leftover food past its prime, even used paper plates can be turned into compost. Those plates were once living trees. Snicker if you will, but even old clothes, if made of cotton, wool or other natural materials, can be composted.
The Convenience of Composting
A few roadblocks — besides that old bugbear, habit — keep people from composting.
One is the perception that composting is less convenient or more work than bagging up trash. Not really, if you keep a small container by the kitchen sink and dump its contents once daily on your compost pile; if you rake leaves into an out-of-the-way pile or beneath trees and shrubs; and if you just dump anything else compostable as it becomes available on your compost pile. Any of this is less trouble than lining garbage pails with plastic bags, stuffing in garbage, then tying the bags up and hauling them to where they can cause pollution or gobble up land at a landfill.
Some people fear that a compost pile will attract animals or smell bad.
Putting out fresh foods will attract animals, but that can be averted by composting with an animal-proof bin. Or get composting started indoors in a larger bucket by sprinkling a mix of sawdust and soil over each meal’s kitchen trimmings and plate scrapings. The contents will be odor and fly-free, and after a few weeks unattractive to scavengers; then dump it in your compost bin.
As for smells, yes, a compost pile can develop offensive odors, but not if some thought is given to what’s added.
Which leads to perhaps the biggest stumbling block for many people considering making compost: not knowing how.
Without becoming a compost maven, you can make odor-free compost in a reasonable amount of time by doing only three things.
First, make compost in some sort of enclosure. It doesn’t need to be fancy, but it should hold a minimum of 1 cubic yard of material. Make your own or buy one — even better, two — locally or by mail order.
Second, balance nitrogen-rich ingredients with carbon-rich ingredients. Nitrogen-rich materials include kitchen waste, grass clippings, and other green, younger plant parts, as well as manures and nitrogen fertilizers, such as soybean or alfalfa meal. Carbon-rich things include wood chips, straw, paper and other older, usually dry plant materials. A bucket of soybean meal (high in nitrogen) and a pile of wood chips or straw (high in carbon) next to a compost pile keeps these materials handy, ready to balance out seasonal excesses of either.
Third, be patient. You can get finished compost in a couple of months or less, but what’s the rush? Millions of years of evolution are supporting you when you make compost; no matter what you do, the raw materials will eventually rot into compost.
So this Thanksgiving, remember — and give thanks for — the abundance we enjoy. The enormous amount of garbage we generate is, unfortunately, part of that abundance, but it’s something that can be transmuted into the underpinnings of a great garden.