Composting: Giving Mother Nature a helping hand

BRAD HORN/Nevada Appeal Dave Ruf, owner of the Greenhouse Garden Center, demonstrates the use of a compost barrel at his store.

BRAD HORN/Nevada Appeal Dave Ruf, owner of the Greenhouse Garden Center, demonstrates the use of a compost barrel at his store.

Composting in its natural form has been going on since the beginning of time. Each year, nature produces foliage in the spring. In the fall, when the leaves tumble from the trees, and annual plants die, they begin the process of what we call composting. Over time, this decayed plant matter becomes the food for a plant or tree. This is composting at it's most basic.

Today, with roads and condos rapidly covering the earth, this cycle has been altered. We all need to help to protect and maintain our soil, which produces our food,and grows the flowers that add beauty to our lives. The natural process of composting is carried out by the thousands of micro-organisms that live naturally in soil. These organisms, like all living things, need food, air and water. They feed on the organic waste materials, converting it into compost.

David Ruf, the soil master at Carson's Garden Greenhouse on Curry Street, knows all of this quite well. And he recently took time out of his many regular duties to share the idea of modern composting with an audience of 30 on a Saturday morning. As always, he was armed with a can of cola.

"There are two kinds of additive we use for soil," he said. "There's the 'all natural, which has no carbon matter. And there's the all organic, which has oxygen. Our soil here in Nevada is alkaline and we need to make it more acidic for successful gardening."

Soil testing for pH, which is the reading of a soil's acid or alkaline content, is easy, Ruf said. "Kits are inexpensive and easy to operate."

The pH measurement goes from 0 to 14, with 7 a balance between acid and alkaline; the lower the number the more acidic the soil is. While there are many compounds that can influence pH, "Composting is one of the best. It's easy and anyone can do it," said Ruf.

Just about anything that once lived is usable for composting. You just have to put it together in a common-sense manner and pay attention to it now and then. There are three ways to make compost: In a commercial bin or barrel; in a constructed container or as a pile on the ground with a tarp over it.

Organic material piled up breaks down into humus, no matter how or where it is stored. But some sort of barrel, box or bin will keep your back yard compost pile tidier, keep the neighbors happier, and discourage rodents, flies and other animal pests.

One of the more modern compost containers is a plastic barrel, engineered to make it easy to turn the compost over for best results. Users can "just spin the barrel and keep the compost active," said Ruf.

Materials for composting include grass clippings, manure, kitchen scraps, leaves, hay, straw. Mix 'em up. Usually a compost pile starts with layers: carbonaceous material such as straw, leaves and woody material in one layer, topped with nitrogenous materials such as grass clippings, kitchen waste and fresh green material. A compound starter can be used on top of a layer of green material.

Shred and chop with the idea that "smaller is better." Run the lawn mower over fallen leaves. Use grass clippings sparingly so they don't mat down. Aim for a box size of 3 feet square and 3 or 4 feet tall. Fill it, keep it moist (but not wet) and wait a couple of days and "stick your arm into the pile. It should be hot in there, a sign that it's working," said Ruf to a chorus of "Oohs." "You can just wash your hand," he countered. A good formula for mixing grass clippings and leaves is two to four buckets of clippings to 10 buckets of chopped up leaves.

Use a pitchfork to turn the compost, or a compost tumbler to add air to the mix.

But don't add meats, dairy products or grease; kitchen scraps heavy with oil; droppings from dogs or cats; or diseased plants, weeds that have gone to seed or perennial weeds with spreading roots. Also, no stems or branches which take a long time to decompose.

"Don't worry about most seeds; the temperature of the compost pile will kill them," Ruf said.

Turn the mix weekly and add water if the pile dries and "in a couple of months you should have rich, beautiful compost."

Your compost pile

Here are some tips from the Internet experts:

You can make your own rich dark humus with nothing more than fallen leaves, grass clippings, and the plant prunings and parts that you would have to deal with one way or another, anyway.

• Ideally, your compost facility should be set in full sun, directly on the soil, but anyplace will do.

• Begin your pile with a base of three to four inches of straw or twiggy material on the bottom for good air circulation.

• Add alternating three- to four-inch layers of wet green material and dry brown material.

• The green matter should consist of a mix of grass clippings and garden waste.

• The brown matter should consist of a mix of dry leaves, straw, or shredded newspaper (no colored ink or glossy paper though).

• Uncooked fruit and vegetables may be added to the green layers, but should be covered with a layer of soil before the next brown layer, to prevent odors and flies.

• Mix everything up well every two weeks.

• Don't let your compost pile dry out

• DO NOT COMPOST meat, fish, bones, dairy products, fats or oils, pet waste, diseased plant materials, hardy weeds, or grass clippings which have been treated with herbicides or weed-and-feed-type products.

The resulting product of your composting endeavor is crumbly, dark, soil-like humus which makes an incredibly rich, organic fertilizer for your garden. You also get the added benefit of keeping a lot of unnecessary stuff from being dumped into our landfills. Besides, you are doing something to help our earth.


Compost (käm pOst) n. - A mixture that consists largely of decayed organic matter and is used for fertilizing and conditioning land.


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