DIG IT — MASTER GARDENER TIPS FOR THE MILE-HIGH REGION: The Dirt on Better Dirt

“Composting is not only a sustainable way to deal with food waste from the house, but it can also be rewarding to see that food waste become a health compost, which you then get to use in your own garden bed,” said Eric Hammond, horticultural agent for the Adams County Colorado State University Extension office

Real experts who have grown real gardens in the real world on the Front Range tell you  what you need to know to have you rooting for your very own crop of successes this summer season

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By Jeremy Johnson, Staff Writer

Your family’s trash is nature’s treasure, and there’s no better way to give back to Mama Earth — after all, she’s done so much for you — than by backyard composting.

“Composting is not only a sustainable way to deal with food waste from the house, but it can also be rewarding to see that food waste become a health compost, which you then get to use in your own garden bed,” said Eric Hammond, horticultural agent for the Adams County Colorado State University Extension office. “So, there’s a personal satisfaction, plus the sustainability piece.”

It’s elemental

OK, so composting isn’t rocket science. But it is science: “All you really need is organic matter and the microorganisms in that matter, and water and air for decomposition,” said Donnetta Wilhelm, Arapahoe County master gardener.

Once you’ve found a place for your pile — Wilhelm said how a person composts is really up to an individual homeowner’s tastes, preferences or available resources, but that all facilities can be equally effective — composting comes naturally.

“Think about it: If you leave a banana out on your counter and watch what happens to it, in a very short period of time it starts decomposing,” Hammond said. “Composting happens in nature without our help all the time. So, if you put a pile in your yard, it will eventually become compost.”

And while time makes veggie garden-grade fertilizer of most organic trash, faculty member Ray Daugherty of Front Range Community College’s Horticulture and Landscape Technology program said a finely ground, balanced mix of carbon- and nitrogen-based waste is key to really getting compost “cooking.”

“A good compost needs a balance … and they’ll know they have the right balance when the pile starts to heat up,” said Daugherty.

Wilhelm said carbon can include ingredients like dead leaves, dried grass clippings and weeds, and small, pencil-size branches, but also man-or-pet-made matter such as shredded paper products, tissues, Kleenex, paper towels, coffee filters, dryer lint, vacuum bag contents, hair, nail clippings or even a “hubby’s old T-Shirt,” because cotton is a natural fiber.

“That’s the brown portion,” Wilhelm said. “The nitrogen component — that’s kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, egg shells, tea bags and fresh yard waste. Those two components, those are what’s needed.

Keep compost cooking

While certain manures can help composting, Daugherty warned that others can cause sickness.

“You can’t use certain manure like dog unless you really have good composting skills, because they can carry certain diseases,” he said. “And if you put your compost in a vegetable garden, it could cause problems down the line. Canine and feline manure are excluded; if you have chickens or cow or horse manure, that can be used.”

But if you have plenty of green yard waste, you needn’t worry much about that crap, Daugherty added.

Hammond said there’s one other thing compost piles can do without: proteins. Not only are meats, dairies and proteins hard to break down, they might attract unwanted pests and scavengers.

Wilhelm added a few things to the list: “You don’t want to use any kind of diseased plant material … or any kind of potato-related items — they have a virus that can take over the soil,” she said. “And no synthetics or plastics, no ash wood … you don’t want to use diapers, milk cartons, juice cartons, shiny magazines.

“There’s a pretty substantial list of things not to use and with good reason,” Wilhelm added. “My rule of thumb is, if I’m in doubt and I leave it out.”

Coming together (breaking apart)

In Colorado, dryness can draw out the composting process.

Compost should feel like a sponge slightly damp to the touch, Wilhelm said. Shaded spots under trees or in corners, to the north or east side of a house can help keep compost from drying too much. But climate can be a particular challenge, even for the most skilled food and yard waste scrap recycler.

“Home composters have to have patience,” Daugherty said. “It might not be something that happens overnight.”

Wilhelm estimated usable compost in three to four months, for a smaller pile; longer for bigger heaps. Aerating the pile by turning it with a pitchfork (for open piles) and keeping it loosely covered can help speed the process, she said.

But once the compost reaches peak quality, brown and rich like soil, “you’re good to go,” Wilhelm said.

“You can put 1 to 2 inches of compost in veggie or flower beds and turn that into the soil,” she said. “I like to use mine as mulch for my roses.

“Place it at the base of the plant and it will help feed it, and it’s much healthier than adding fertilizer.”

PRO TIP:

Compost should feel like a sponge slightly damp to the touch, Wilhelm said. Shaded spots under trees or in corners, to the north or east side of a house can help keep compost from drying too much. But climate can be a particular challenge, even for the most skilled food and yard waste scrap recycler.

“Home composters have to have patience,” Daugherty said. “It might not be something that happens overnight.”

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