Compost: A rotting good time

Gardeners hear and talk a lot about compost. What is it, really, and why should a person bother with it?

Compost is the natural reduction of organic waste into humus. All organic matter will eventually break down into a form usable by plants. In other words, it will rot.

Nutrients needed for plant growth cannot be absorbed until they have undergone this process of decomposition. We can wait for this to happen very slowly, as occurs in the forest, or we can accelerate and manage the process and have usable compost sooner.

Backyard composting can be divided into two main methods — hot and cold — which refers to the temperature reached by the decomposing materials.

A hot compost pile needs to reach 140 degrees, which kills most weed seeds and pathogens. With this method, you will have usable compost more quickly, possibly within a few weeks, but it is also more work and you must have enough materials on hand to build a pile at least a cubic yard in size. That means you'll need some method of storing materials until you have enough to make a cubic yard.

As composting materials decompose, they produce microbes that suppress soil-borne diseases. The hot compost method produces fewer microbes and will attract fewer worms because of the temperature of the pile.

The cold composting method is much slower, taking six months to two years to produce usable compost, but it's also less work and materials can be added a little at a time.

Over the next two weeks, I will go into more detail about composting, including the use of compost tumblers, the lasagna, or sheet method, carbon-to-nitrogen ratios, aeration, moisture, material size and volume.

Right about now you might be asking yourself whether making your own compost is worth all that work. I hope I can help you come to a decision.

Coming up: The Oregon State University Master Gardener Spring Garden Fair is scheduled for May 5-6 at the Jackson County Expo, 1 Peninger Road, Central Point. It's a great place to buy plants, attend free classes, visit the plant clinic, shop for gently used garden books, meet lots of vendors and rub elbows with other gardeners.

Carol Oneal is a past president of the OSU Jackson County Master Gardeners Association. Email her at

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