More About Composting

Composting is a process in which organic materials are allowed to decompose, it is a biological process more so than a chemical or mechanical process. Decomposition and transformation of the materials is accomplished through the action of fungi, bacteria, and other micro organisms.

With proper control of moisture, temperature, and aeration, composting can result in an overall reduction of volume of the material by as much as 50%. The final product is called compost or some call it humus.

Composting can increase the organic and nutrient content of soil and improve its texture and ability to retain moisture. Home or back yard composting is practiced by many people; if properly done, home composting can divert up to 30% of a typical households waste from a municipal landfill or incinerator.

The number on problem with a compost heap, is if improperly maintained it can become a foul, slimy. smelly mess and rather intense. This problem can be eliminated by proper aeration of the pile by aerating and turning the pile frequently, eliminating the process of anaerobic decomposition.

Keep Those Fingers Dirty!



What is “Hardening Off?”

The last step in the raising of seedlings to be transplanted outside in the garden is preparing them to be outside, and this is known as hardening off. Outside the seedlings must be able to adapt to many new things in their future home. They must adapt to stronger sun light, wind, temperature fluctuations, rain and changing soil moisture conditions. It is kind of like jumping into the lake the first time after ice out, we would like to take our time to adjust to things. If you move them outside to quickly and all at once you will shock the tender plants and this may result in stunted growth or even death.

When we are ready to move plants outside for the season we want to harden them to the conditions or harden them off.  We do this by gradually introducing them to the new outdoors climate. One of the best ways is by using a cold frame or hoop house but lets pretend that we don’t have those available to us. The next best thing to do would be to move the seedlings outside for a short amount of time and increase the duration of the next few days. The first day out try only 2 hours and then bring them back in the house, then the next day try 4 hours and the next 6 hours, increasing the outdoor time by two hours each day until  we are leaving them outside both day and night.

This is easy if you are home all day to tend to these duties, but most of us work outside the home. So here is what I do I start on a Friday afternoon for two hours, Saturday for 4 hours, Sunday for 6 and then Monday they are outside from the time I leave until I get home, about 8-10 hours and then on Tuesday I leave them out for two hours after I get home…you get the picture.

When leaving the tender seedlings outside, protect them from direct winds, and direct sunlight for the first week and be sure that there is good moisture in the soil before leaving them out. Within two weeks of hardening off, the plants are now ready to be transplanted into your garden, that is as long as the snow and frost is over for the year, and up here in Minnesota/North Dakota that can still happen in June. So then we need to provide protection, more on that later.

Keep Those Fingers Dirty!


Compost Happens

Up North here in Zone 4, Easter is now behind us and the spring job of getting the garden ready for the planting season is next. I want to encourage you before you start your spring yard and garden clean up to get your compost pile started. I just cringe when I see the amount of composting materials that are placed on the boulevard in the cities and small towns when “Spring Clean-Up Week” comes to be. Why throw away this valuable material when it is so beneficial to us as gardeners.

There is a simple, nutrient rich material right here at our finger tips, it is so simple that we just don’t notice what we have. Generations of gardeners have always known a simple fact, a fertile soil is the key to growing vegetables, and compost is the key component of a fertile, rich soil. As we follow the method that Mel Bartholomew uses in the square foot garden, the only thing that we need to add to an already established nutrient rich Mel’s Mix is an occasional scoop of compost.

Compost is not a magical process whose secret is available only to the scientists and chemists . It is not that difficult, in fact you could say  “Compost Happens”. Even if we do nothing more than pile our compost ingredients on the ground in a heap and do nothing more than that, in a few years we will have a very rich and nutrient filled material, what we want to do as gardeners is speed along the process.

There are two ways in which compost or what is more appropriately defined as “decomposition of organic materials” happens. One is aerobic decomposition and the other is anaerobic decomposition. Let’s talk about each and the benefits and drawbacks of each.

Aerobic decomposition in laymen terms is rotting of organic materials in the presence of oxygen. Aerobic decomposition is very efficient and quite quick in terms of time. As the materials start to break down, the materials start giving off heat and as long as there is oxygen available this heating process continues until all of the energy that was stored up in the material has been spent. As I said, this is a very efficient way to encourage and quicken the composting process. We can even speed this up more by keeping a supply of water availible to keep the pile or heap damp and by mixing the pile frequently to ensure that fresh energy rich materials are introduced to the decomposition process. A good healthy aerobic decomposing compost pile will not give off offensive odors, but more of a rich earthy smell.

Anaerobic decomposition is what is done in the absence of oxygen, this is sometimes known as putrefaction. This is a very inefficient process that is slow and very odorous. You will find this material to be a rotting, slimy, stinky and unappealing sludge that no one would want on or near your home or for that matter on or near your vegetables that you would like to eat.

Sometimes, a unproperly managed compost heap will go through a stage where anaerobic decomposition will occur. As soon as a compost pile starts to stink, be aware that you have been put on notice by Mother Nature that your compost pile is either too wet, or too much “green” material, or just all out in need of a good mixing or turning over of the pile.

No matter which way your materials decompose, eventually even the worst maintained pile will stop stinking and the remnants will be nothing more than a rich , nutrient filled, magical garden soil enhancing material that will feed your plants to healthy maturity unlike any other synthetic compound is able to do.

Don’t throw your garden and yard waste to the streets this spring but assign it to greater duties of becoming compost, God’s gift to the gardener.

Later we will talk about a good way to manage a compost pile that will provide you the magic nutrients all the while keeping you from being banished from your neighbors Christmas card list.


Keep Those Fingers Dirty!