#2) Gardening and Compost–Soil Health

When I was a kid we had a large garden in the back yard, big enough to grow most of what we needed to eat for the whole summer. My dad rototilled the grass under every spring and rototilled it throughout the summer, between the rows of plants, when the weeds became too much. Since we had clay soil, it was heavy and compact, so we had to break up the lumps by hand or with a hoe. Never once did I hear about compost, manure or even hay. We bought the shake-on powder fertilizer and added miracle-gro brand fertilizer to the water we gave the plants. With lots of weeding and care, we always had a good harvest.

Now that I look back on this way of gardening, I think it a bit chemical and a bit usual for the time. But what were those chemical fertilizers doing to the food and soil? I can’t say. All I know is that I have found much better ways of gardening that are sustainable, non-polluting and work within the framework of a household without worrying about chemicals. We all produce garbage, and much of it is compostable. If you have animals like chickens, rabbits, goats, sheep or cows, their manure can be the fertilizer for your garden and also a great addition to your compost pile. Recycling kitchen scraps improves and feeds soil microbes and plants.

We don’t have any animals yet, so I usually use hay and composted cow manure, as well as compost to feed my soil. (Here in Saudi it is hard to find cow manure. There is plenty of chicken manure though, and that works just a well.) I didn’t know much about compost until a few years ago when I got our house a compost bin. By experimentation and reading articles, I finally got the combo of ‘green’ to ‘brown’ right to produce that luscious, black-gold dirt, as some say. There is nothing like putting in vegetable peelings, cut rinds, leftover rotting things in the fridge that are vegetable or fruit, and seeing it all eventually turn into this dark, rich humus earth. It doesn’t smell bad, just fresh, and if you are lucky, worms have already found it at the bottom of your pile. What you do want are worms, as they aerate the soil and break it up, to help it breathe. Tiny microorganisms have been at work breaking down the leftover peelings and turning it all into soil once more.

Having compost available will make your plants healthier, grow better, and you will be eating well! So now when I throw scraps away in the garbage I feel guilt to some extent because I am throwing “food” away that the garden can use. It’s wasting the waste!

For small scale gardens like a patio garden, container gardens or potted plants, you can only handle so much compost. The best is to get a large container, but something that won’t take up your valuable space, if you live with only a terrace let’s say. You can use a metal trash can, plastic storage bin, or even bucket. Something you don’t mind seeing. You’ll need to drill some holes for aeration on the sides and bottom, and it will need to be in a place that gets some sun, as you’ll want to keep things nice and warm inside. If you live in a hot climate, then the compost pile or bin doesn’t need to be in the sun as it will be warm enough.

All vegetable and fruit scraps can be used in compost. What you don’t want are animal products as they tend to smell and take longer to compost. You will also attract other animals such as rats when you put out bones, cheese, milk, meat, butter. I’ve read that you can put hair into compost, but for me, egg shells are the only protein animal-wise that I put in. The rule for compost is 1/2 green matter to 1/2 brown matter.

green matter, vegetable and fruit scraps, grass clippings, tea, coffee, (also manure)

brown matter, leaves, newspaper (black and white print), paper towels, cardboard.

Either shred the paper products or tear it up into smaller pieces. This will help it mix better and also decompose faster. You don’t want your mixture to ‘cake’ together, as it will be a heavy, soggy mess. What you do want is air to get to your pile, that’s why the drilled holes are so important around the sides and bottom.

Starting your compost! Add some soil to start. So for starters 1/3 soil, 1/3 green, 1/3 brown. So if you fill a pan with soil, then fill it with scraps, then fill it with newspaper you are good. You can use anything to measure but it doesn’t have to be exact. For instance if you keep a small bucket in your kitchen to collect your scraps for a few days, when you dump them in your compost container or pile, just add some cardboard, leaves, paper towels that day in about the same amount, and you have it.

Try to mix it up with a shovel or spoon, etc. depending on your containers size. Do this once a week for aeration and to help the new additions you’ve made, get down where the composting is happening. So ideally you will create a top layer of fresh add-ins, a middle layer of “working” compost/decaying, moist and warm, and the bottom layer of mainly broken down, deep brown/black compost ready to use. It’s that simple. Always add some moisture when you mix it up. That way you keep things moist and prime for decomposition. Sun helps heat up your mix and create the optimal temp. for the breakdown by organisms. If you have your container open to the earth on the ground, then you just may get some worms in your compost, which are a blessing. That means you have nice healthy soil.

Not all of us will have a pile touching the earth, and that’s ok. If you can put a “door” at the bottom of your container or bin, that is ideal so you can scoop out the compost from the bottom layers. If not, then my advice is to scoop the oldest area of your pile out, once you have had it going for say 2 or 3 months, so you have room to keep composting. Your pile will always sink as the larger items are broken down, so room shouldn’t be an issue. And really you can take half-composted material and use it in your garden. Just put it deeper into the soil so it can continue to break down better.

We have friends who skip the compost process and just take kitchen scraps, once a week, and dig a hole in their back yard to bury the scraps. That works too, especially good for trees and under bushes if you can dig about a foot down. Anyway, good luck and keep experimenting! Here’s a good site I found where more technical things are explained, if you want to read more.

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