The healthiest, most productive soils are deep brown, smell like brownies (to me, anyway), and are light in texture. If you grab a handful and clench it briefly, it holds its shape for a few seconds, and then starts to gently fall away from the clump, sort of the way fresh brown sugar does. This soil is loaded with nutrients and beneficial microbes that boost plant growth and health. Earthworms, mankind’s best friend, love and promote healthy soil. Unfortunately, most of us do not naturally have such soil. It’s either been: a) scraped away and sold off by the developer who built our neighborhood, or b) washed away by heavy rains and blown away by winter winds after the tree cover was removed from the land.
Composting is a great opportunity to recycle a significant fraction of our food and household waste, mixed with fallen leaves and decomposing plant matter, into beautiful, earthworm rich garden soil. By incorporating mature compost into vegetable gardens and flower beds, we can break our expensive and counterproductive chemical fertilizer addiction. Fall is the best time to gather the ingredients and start cooking up some compost for next spring.
By the way, there are a couple of links below that go into greater (read nerdier) detail on all the factors involved in determining soil health. I stick a shovel into the ground to a depth of about a foot, and wait to see how many earthworms come up to get away from the disturbance. If there are about a dozen, then I’m happy. While that’s not really the best way to determine earthworm density, if you don’t have any earthworms wriggling out of the soil, you’ve got some major work to do.
There are so many online articles on how to make your own composters, ranging from a staked chicken wire enclosure to a rotating compost bin. You can buy all manner of compost bins – stationary, rotating, and stackable, to name a few. You can even just make a pile of leaves and kitchen scraps. Just get started. Along with what you decide to throw into your composting vehicle, where you decide to locate the compost pile/enclosure/bin is a major factor in how successful you will be in producing sufficient quantities of composted material, ready for incorporation into the garden. In general, it’s best to locate the composting activity on bare soil, so that earthworms have easy access to the compost. Some sun is nice, but too much will overheat your composting materials.
One of the most difficult things about composting is maintaining the right balance between green materials – those that break down rather rapidly and provide nitrogen, and brown materials – those that break down slowly and provide carbon. Proper aeration and layering of brown and green materials keep the compost pile from becoming a solid, slimy, smelly mess. The problem with maintaining the balance is that we usually have far more green materials than brown. The links below offer guidance on how to make the best use of all the materials we have available to us in our yards, and how to concoct the best mix of materials for maximum compost production. Compost does have an expiration date, so it doesn’t improve with age. You’ll know when it’s ready, by its texture and aroma.
Take some time to peruse these articles, and the articles which are linked to them, and then get out there and rake up some leaves, start saving your coffee grounds and banana peels. Making your own soil, which is what composting really is, is so rewarding. To me, there’s nothing quite like seeing big, juicy earthworms in garden soil. They are truly a sign that I’m doing something right.
http://eartheasy.com/article_autumn_composting_tips.html (This site sells composters, but you should conduct a thorough search of available composting systems from various vendors before making a purchase.)
(Header Image: Erde ©Cora Müller – Fotolia)