Extension Service Master Composter program
Composting & Mulching
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Articles on Composting
Links to articles about composting via InfoTrac Garden, Landscape & Horticulture:
"Sheet Compost", Horticulture Magazine
"Compost made easy: these 10 facts about composting will help you turn food and yard waste into garden gold", Mother Earth News
"What's in the Heap? (includes information on what not to put in the compost heap)." Mother Earth News
"How to make compost: choose from the many easy ways to make compost for increased garden productivity: low-cost homemade bins, piles sans bins, chicken power, pest-proof tumblers--even indoor worm bins!" Mother Earth News
Composting & Mulching
Compost is an excellent soil amendment for humus*-hungry New Mexico soils. Composting transforms garden biomass and kitchen scraps into rich dark fertilizer.
Compost and Mulch work well together. Mulching is often essential for gardening success in New Mexico, protecting soils from drying wind and sun in the South and temperature swings in the North. Mulching can also make a big difference in your water bill, reducing garden water usage by up to two-thirds.
There are many different methods of composting, from the classic simple pile to commercial bins -- see the "Composting Methods" page for an overview. "Bokashi Composting", a Japanese method that works quickly and uses no water, is gaining followers in the Southwest -- see that page for details.
* Humus (hyoo-mus) is what gardeners call plant material in the soil.
How Compost Can Benefit Your Soil
(from Backyard Composting by Harmonious Technologies)
- Compost increases organic matter in soils.
- Compost builds sound root structure.
- Compost makes clay soils airy so they can drain.
- Compost gives sandy soils body to hold moisture.
- Compost attracts and feeds earthworms.
- Compost balances pH (acidity/alkalinity) of soil.
- Compost reduces water demands of plants and trees.
- Compost helps control soil erosion.
- Compost lessens plant stress from drought and freezes.
- Compost can extend the growing season.
- Compost improves vitamin and mineral content in food grown in compost-rich soils.
- Compost generously applied reduces reliance upon petroleum-based fertilizers.
Composting - Handbooks
Composting can be done at every scale, from a few kitchen scraps up to large amounts of agricultural "waste."
Composting saves biomass out of the trash stream and the landfill (up to 40% of household trash is compostable) and turns it into the perfect soil amendment, full of nutrients and with high moisture retention.
Composting can be done in many ways, from the traditional "pile" to commercial bins that may even be used indoors.
One of the Down-to-Earth Guides from Storey Publishing - clear information and practicable techniques for the novice composter. With line illustrations of designs for compost enclosures.
Home Composting: Art or Science? - Why Compost? - How Decomposition Works - Compostable Materials Are All Around You - Activators Get Things Cooking! - Composting Methods to Stimulate Your Imagination - Bin, Barrels, and Tumblers - What to Consider Before Building a Compost Pile - Methods to Speed Decomposition - Composting Concerns - The End Product and How to Use It
"Burying garbage is a quick and easy way to recycle waste materials. Also called pit composting, it has the obvious advantage of putting everything out of sight and, for a while at least, out of mind. It also permits the composting material to stay warmer in the winter and damper in the summer. ... Some folks with small gardens that are spaded and worked by hand bury garbage in long trenches. This is a good idea. Vegetable plantings can eventually be made directly on top of the covered trench, but it is not a healthy plan to do this too soon after the trench has been filled. It is better to allow the garbage plenty of time to decompose." - pg 64
"Some gardeners add fertilizers such as superphospate or muriate of potash to their compost-in-the-making. A few of those I have talked to are slightly confused, thinking that such things will help to activate the dormant bacteria and fungi that are already in the pile. Unfortunately, that doesn't work. ...chemical fertilizer is not particularly effective as an activator because unlike animal matter and some vegetable matter, it contains no protein. In fact, chemicals will probably be more valuable if applied to compost after it is finished (the 'goodies' are less likely to be leached out that way) or to the garden soil directly." - pg. 46-47"If you want hot, fast compost, your pile should measure at least 1 cubic yard. A pile that is too small will have a hard time heating up and will cool off, or even freeze, quite readily. In most areas of the continental United States, a compost pile needs quite a bit of mass to be self-insulating and maintain ideal timperatures. A pile that is too small may lose its heat so quickly each night that pathenogenic organisms, weed seeds, and larvae will not be killed, slowing the whole process. On the other hand, a pile that's too large can have different problems. The length doesn't matter, but if you make it much wider or higher than 5 or 6 feet, the center of the pile may not get enough air and you could wind up with an anaerobic area there." - pg. 94
Practical and philosophical discussion about how composting works, and how we use it to work for us. Includes information on large-scale commercial composting.
"There are many beneficial forms of life in the soil. Scientists now tell us that there is more tonnage of life and numbers of species in the soil than growing above. All of this life gets its energy from the sun. But only the green leaf plants have the ability to collect the sun's energy. All other life forms depend on the plant to pass energy to them. The plants above and soil life below depend on each other for their healthy existence and continued survival." - pg.23
"Many books on composting make it so complicated that you need advanced degrees in science to understand them. Most people who successfully make compost, however, learned by observing Nature. It is much easier to understand the science after you have mastered the art of composting than the other way around." - pg. 40
Digging into compost basics - get a handle on the benefits of composting and the tools you'll need to get started
Choosing the best method and location - find the best composting method and location that's right for you, whether it's above ground, in a hole, in a container or bin, or even right in your kitchen
Building your pile - learn which ingredients can go into your compost pile, what stays out, and how to mix it all up in the right proportions
Stepping beyond traditional composting - get the lowdown on vermicomposting (letting worms eat your garbage), growing green manures to compost later, and sheet composting in the same spot you plan to plant
- from the back cover
- - Making compost
- - Taking soil samples (and learning how to interpret them)
- - All-organic methods of feeding plants and controlling pests and diseases
- - Dealing with poor drainage, heavy clay, and compacted ground
- - Choosing and using mulches effectively
- - Specific soil preparation for flowers, vegetables, fruits, trees, shrubs, and lawns
"The most reliable way to determine fertility is to test a sample at home or send it to a laboratory. Most garden centers and garden supply catalogs sell at least one brand of home soil-test kit at a relatively low cost. Most of these tests use indicator dyes, which change color under different conditions, and provide color charts for interpreting the results. On a per-test basis, home test kits cost about the same as most state [extension service] testing services but less than most private labs. Testing labs, however, send a detailed report on the availability of major nutrients in your soil." - pg. 15
"Soil health is indivisible from humus, the main component of compost. If a soil's fauna is vital and active, it will go to work breaking down raw organic matter - the waste products or remains of other organisms. Once organic matter has undergone some degree of decomposition, it can become humus, a dark brown, porous, spongy, somewhat gummy and pleasantly earthy-smelling substance." - pg. 14
"As in all ecosystems, the organisms in a compost pile thrive under certain specific conditions. This is where people come in. Successful composting is simply a matter of maintaining the appropriate habitat for the decomposers." - pg. 22
"It has been estimated that there are more microorganisms in a teaspoon of compost that there are people on earth. By adding compost to the soil, your are adding billions of beneficial microorganisms. A complex, living soil is a healthier, more stable soil in which no one organism can erupt unchecked. We've grown accustomed to simplifying the equation with chemicals that do one job, but humus, like most things in the living world, serves a whole variety of functions, and is not easily replaced." - pg. 24
"When the conditions in your compost pile are just right, the resident bacteria go into a feeding frenzy and give off a lot of heat, which makes the compost 'hot.' If a fast turn-around time is important to you and you have enough materials to load up one cubic yard within a week or so, consider hot composting. Smaller piles may not be able to trap the heat, but you can keep them warmer by insulating the pile with hay bales, bubble wrap or foam insulation panels. These insulators also effectively trap compost heat in cold weather." - pg.48
"One way of accelerating the activity in your heap is to aerate on a regular basis, and it doesn't cost you a penny to do it. I like to see a compost heap placed directly on the ground as this enables worms to get into it and help to aerate and break down the compost further. The ground also acts as insulation and allows for drainage. Do not put your compost heap in the wettest part of the garden or in a hollow, where water will have difficutly in draining away and your heap will become stagnant and foul smelling. Allow the heap some access to sunshine. Although many people say that this is unnecessary, the sun will help heat up the compost and keep it warm. Keep the heap covered at all times; this helps to retain moisture and, if you want to encourage worms into your compost, they will work better in the dark anyway. Use a material such as old carpet or sacking which has the power to absorb moisture or release it as required." - pg.43
"Compost worms are very prolific and, like other earthworms, are most active in the spring and autumn months. They are very sociable creatures and like to live a communal life... It's probably their living habits that encourage them to lay an average of two eggs a week. These eggs take approximately eleven weeks to hatch out, though if conditions are extremely favourable this sometimes decreases to five weeks. Each egg can contain anything up to five worms, although two or three is a more usual number." - pg. 59
Delightful illustrations show children how composting turns garden scraps back into food.
Handy overview of composting techiques and practice, with discussion of using blenders and garbage disposals to create compostable slurries. Practical designs for compost enclosures from purchased or salvaged materials, and "recipes" for composting success.
"...America is losing over three billion tons of topsoil a year, with as much as 700 million tons washing into the Gulf of Mexico alone. Perhaps it's time now to heed the words of President Franklin Roosevelt: 'The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.' " - pg. 20
"Perhaps you have an extra plastic trash can that you use to put leaves and grass in. To convert your trash can into a composter, just cut off the bottom with a saw or knife and then place your new unit onto the soil somewhere in your yard. Drill about 24 to 48 1/4-inch holes in the sides of your can to increase the air flow, or leave it as it is and have a closed-air system.
You can bury the bottom of your can a few inches below the soil surface and press the loosened soil around the sides to secure it. To increase your composter's capacity, just dig deeper - about one or two feet down. Digging also creates access for nature's helpers to enter, decompose and 'shrink' your materials." - pg. 31
A word from your guide
New Mexico soils are always hungry for plant material, and compost is the best soil amendment there is.
Composting can be done in a corner of the yard, in the soil itself, or even indoors. Get that biomass out of the trash and into your soil! And enjoy wonderful food and flowers as a result.