Easy steps to a cold compost

Composting has been around for as long as the Earth has had plants. In other words, decomposition is as old as dirt. In fact, the poet Walt Whitman suggested that the Earth is just a big compost pile. Mother Nature has been composting for eons, although her method is a bit slow for modern humans. Although everything organic in nature will rot eventually, science has discovered ways to enhance and hasten the process. Composters refer to hot (fast) or cold (slower) composting; today I will address the cold method.

Sometimes I think we try to make composting too difficult. Remember that even if you make some mistakes, you will probably come up with some reasonably good, usable compost.

Two basic kinds of materials are needed: green (high in nitrogen) and brown (high in carbon). Examples of green materials include grass clippings that have not been treated with any kind of weed killer, fresh cow, chicken or rabbit manure, fruit and vegetable waste and garden trimmings. Horse manure is not included because the horse's digestive system does not kill weed seeds, and you are likely to get lots of weeds if you use it.

High carbon materials include hay, straw, dry leaves, sawdust or wood shavings and chips, tree trimmings and corn stalks. These materials provide a lot of bulk, which allows oxygen to enter the compost pile. Because bacteria are doing most of the decomposition work, and they need oxygen, it is best to give them good working conditions.

Begin by laying down several thicknesses of wet newspaper. Newspaper is an excellent weed barrier, and will help prevent weeds coming up from the soil and invading your compost.

Next, finely chop or grind all materials. This exposes more surface for the bacteria and will hasten the process considerably. Once you have sufficient material to make a pile that is at least 1 cubic yard in size, mix the green and brown in a proportion of about two parts brown to one part green, by volume.

As you stack your pile on the wet newspaper, add enough water as you go so that the material feels like a damp sponge; it should not be soaking wet. Now, be patient for a couple of months to a year, while the stack decomposes. It should never small bad, by the way. If it does, there is too much green, it is too wet or it needs more air. Air can be incorporated by turning or stirring the pile. If you want to add to the pile while it is decomposing, open the center of the pile, add the fresh waste and cover it again.

Decomposition comes to a halt when outdoor temperatures reach about 40 degrees. That is why a cubic-yard pile is recommended — it will produce enough heat to keep things going. Check your pile for moisture during the summer, and add water as needed. In the winter, you may need to cover it if it is getting too wet.

Now, wasn't that easy?

Coming up: The Jackson County Master Gardener Spring Garden Fair is Saturday and Sunday, May 5-6, at the Jackson County Expo. It's the perfect place to buy plants, attend free classes, shop for gently used garden books, visit numerous vendors and get enthused about gardening. See you there. For details, see extension.oregonstate.edu/sorec/mg

Carol Oneal is a past president of the OSU Jackson County Master Gardeners Association. Email her at diggit1225@gmail.com.

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