The Scoop On Poop

Reader Contribution by Lois Hoffman
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Nothing is free, so they say in this world. That is not quite true, for there are a few things left that are free for the taking with only a little bit of effort. One of those is compost. Whether you choose animal or vegetable, all that is required to make this nutrient is a little work with what you probably already have on hand.

I started composting by mistake. There was barbed wire strung around an old stump when we moved in. It was just natural to throw leaves, weeds, food scraps and other unwanted organic material inside just to dispose of it. I soon noticed after some rain and time that it was turning into a mulch-like substance. I had created a crude form of compost without really trying!

With a little more research, I learned that compost helps put valuable nutrients back in the soil and, at the same time, it cuts waste and reduces trash by using what you are already disposing of anyway. And it’s free! It doesn’t get much better than that!

Actually, there are quite a few benefits to composting. It emulsifies the soil, helps retain moisture, and suppresses plant diseases and pests. It does this by encouraging production of beneficial bacteria and fungi that break down organic matter to waste humus, a rich, nutritional field material. During this process, it reduces methane emission for landfills and lowers the carbon footprint on the land. It also drastically reduces the need to supplement the land with chemical fertilizers, which is not only better for consumers, but also better for our pocketbooks.

When folks think of compost they usually always turn their attention to plant-based. However, compost can be not only plant organic material, but also animal-based in the form of manure. Both of these have specific benefits and drawbacks. Animal manure is compost in its truest sense. If you have animals, or have access to someone who does, you know that there is a steady supply of manure, and if anyone wants it, farmers are usually more than happy to oblige in giving it away.

Manure composts easily and is already a perfect combination of nitrogen and carbon. It requires no specific container, usually a big pile in the open is sufficient. You just pile it and leave it alone and it quickly becomes a beautiful (never thought I would be describing manure as beautiful, but the finished product is beauty to a gardener’s eyes!), crumbly, black and odor-free fertilizer. Yes, if composted correctly, there is no odor to the finished product.

If using manure, it is best to let it set for at least six months because any fresher than that could still contain E. coli, roundworms, tapeworms or other parasites that can be passed to humans when they consume the produce. It is best to apply it in the fall and give it time to break down. Of course, manure from different animals offers different benefits to the soil. For example, chicken and bat guano are high in urea nitrogen and are considered “hot” manure, whereas cow and sheep manure are not as hot and are often mixed with high carbon materials such as sawdust or hay.

Folks have known for years that animal manure is good for the garden because it helps build organic matter content, adds nutrients, and increases microbial activity. It also improves drainage in heavy soil and helps with moisture retention in sandy soil. The key to success is knowing when to apply animal compost, how to apply and spread it, and what type to use.

Then there is plant-based compost, which is what usually comes to mind when people think of compost. Any material that was once a plant can be composted and it can be easily made by combining decomposable waste materials from the household to make nutrient-rich, plant-enriching soil.

There are two kinds of vegetable compost: hot and cold. Cold can be made by simply collecting yard waste, organic materials in the trash, fruit and vegetable peels, coffee grounds, eggshells and other scraps and corralling them in a pile or bin. Over the course of a year or so they will decompose. Hot compost is for more serious gardeners and requires gathering the right “mix” of ingredients during one to three months of warm weather. Hot compost requires the ingredients to be in the correct proportions of nitrogen, carbon, air, and water. Finding the right combination of these components will feed microorganisms, which speed the process of decay.

For either type of compost, the “recipe” for cooking it is basically the same. First, you need to gather enough material to make at least a 3-foot pile and this material needs to be a mixture of brown and green biodegradables. Browns come mainly from trees and are rich in carbon. These include dead leaves, twigs, sawdust, wood chips, shredded wool or cotton, coffee filters, nutshells, etc. Greens come from fresher materials such as table scraps, peels, garden waste, etc. Any ingredient rich in nitrogen qualifies as a green. The general rule is to mix three parts brown to one part green.

Layer your brown and green gatherings in a pile or bin then add the next two components of water and air. Sprinkle the pile with water regularly until it has the consistency of a wet sponge. Use caution in not adding too much water or it will drown the microorganisms and the pile will rot. Provide oxygen by turning once a week with a fork during the growing season. For smaller amounts, you can put it in a barrel with holes in it and roll it. A warm center is the best indicator of when to turn the compost. Stirring helps it to cool faster and prevents it from becoming matted down and having a bad odor.

Good finished compost has an earthy smell and looks like rich brown soil. If it has an unpleasant odor it either has too much moisture, too much green material, or is not done cooking. Try turning more often, reducing the moisture and adding more browns. Air and water are the secrets to good composting. By adding these in the appropriate ratios, you will get better compost and the process will be quicker. Compost will happen, it just depends on the ingredients as to how fast.

In the end, you will have created humus, one of the best soil builders around. Compost, whether plant or animal-based, provides a healthy and natural means to enrich soil. The best part of the whole process is that it is free. There, in a nutshell, is the scoop on poop!

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