This article was written by Susan Weiner and appeared in the September Edition of the Newton Community Farm Newsletter and is displayed here with permission. Please visit their website here
Your dead leaves and kitchen waste can help your garden. All you need to do is start and tend a compost pile, following instructions provided by Eric Olson, an ecologist at Brandeis University and a lifelong composter.
You can fertilize naturally and improve your soil's texture by adding compost. Compost is created by a natural process of decomposition that turns your organic matter into humus--odor-free, uniformly textured material that holds water well and slowly releases nutrients into your garden. This biological process relies on bacteria and worms in the process Olson recommends for beginners.
Build your compost pile.
Autumn is the perfect time to start your compost pile. Here's how Olson suggests you start.
1. Collect six to eight large bags of dead leaves.
You're aiming for an ideal ratio of three parts leaves to one part kitchen waste. When you begin composting in the fall the ratio will be more like 100 to 1. Over the course of the year, your pile will become steadily richer in kitchen waste. Come spring, earthworms from the surrounding soil are sure to arrive, accelerating the decomposition process.
Olson leaves a pitchfork out by his compost pile so that each time he adds his kitchen waste he can mix it with a few quick jabs. After about a month, thoroughly pitchfork your bin contents to mix the fresh kitchen waste into the carbon-rich leaves. Bringing your nitrogen-rich kitchen waste into contact with the leaves gives the pile's bacteria the balanced diet they need to create compost. It also reduces the chance that parts of the pile develop bad odors, and it thoroughly hides any scraps that might attract, for example, a curious squirrel. Repeat this process monthly, trying to dig in the wastes and bring up a fresh batch of leaves. Turning speeds decomposition. It also allows you to observe the process of decomposition.
If you're worried about odors, you can rest easy when following Olson's method. "A compost pile doesn't smell as long as you start with a good amount of brown leaves," he says. However, don't treat grass clippings as a substitute for leaves. When you fill your bin with a mixture of only grass and kitchen waste, you'll get a slimy mess that is almost guaranteed to produce nasty odors, Olson says. When he mows his lawn, Olson lets the grass clippings fall where they may, so they can decay and release their nutrients directly back to the soil.
The process described above should yield compost in about one year. Of course, eventually your bin will start to fill up or you'll want to stop adding new wastes so the decomposition process can complete. This is why Olson typically starts a second bin for fresh waste while continuing to turn the contents of original bin. "By the time the second pile is done, we've emptied the first pile and spread it," he says.
What are you waiting for? Get started now!
By Susan B. Weiner