Published on 02/18/10

Turn 'trash' into plant food and improve garden soil

By April Reese Sorrow

Adding compost to your spring garden or landscape helps plants grow better and can keep them from getting wet feet. It also creates plant “food” from trash, says a University of Georgia expert.

“Composting is very good for drainage. The organic matter increases the air space and allows water and air to penetrate the soil,” said Bob Westerfield, a UGA Cooperative Extension horticulturist.

Do not add compost to gardens until the soil is dry enough to be worked. He suggests tilling finished compost into the soil 6 to 8 inches deep.

“Incorporating finished compost into vegetable garden beds or plant beds amends the soil and allows water and air to filter more easily through the soil,” he said. “This can help prevent run-off and adds nutrients to the soil.”

Nearly-finished compost can be used as mulch and helps plants retain moisture and prevent weeds.

What is it?

Compost is decomposed organic matter. In heavy clay soils, compost reduces compaction, increases aeration and helps water better infiltrate the soil. In sandy soils, it helps the soil retain both water and nutrients.

Compost is made from a mix of brown and green organic materials. Brown compost materials include dry, dead plants, autumn leaves, dried grass clippings, shredded paper and wood chips. These provide carbon.

Green compost materials – such as fresh plant products, coffee grounds, tea bags and kitchen fruit and vegetable waste – provide nitrogen.

Westerfield says to include more brown items than green. The ratio should be 3-to-1. Don’t add meats, bones, grease or other animal-based food waste. They can smell bad and attract rodents.

Pile care

Materials should be added in layers, alternating brown and green. A pile of compost can take three weeks to six months to process, depending on the care. Adding fresh material to a pile can cause the process to take longer.

“The composting cycle will work faster if the pile is kept moist and turned frequently,” he said. “The more you agitate the pile the faster it will compost.”

Along with turning the pile a few times a month, rain water helps maintain moisture. Water should be added only to keep the pile moist, not wet.

“It is nice to have two or three bins so you can have several stages of compost,” he said.

Westerfield suggests removing finished compost from a pile and keeping it contained in a separate bin for use.

“Some people are disappointed because they fill the bin up and when it becomes compost, they end up with 10 to 20 percent of what they put in,” he said. “As it biodegrades, its volume drastically reduces.”

Fertilizer can be added to the pile. A little 10-10-10 and a few scoops of garden soil are suggested. Don’t add lime to the mixture.

Another option in composting is vermicomposting, which uses worms to help break down the organic waste.

While composting provides organic material valuable to plants, most people view composting as a form of recycling. In many counties, landfills no longer accept green materials.

“It’s a way to recycle waste and save money by producing a product from trash you would otherwise have to buy,” Westerfield said.

April R. Sorrow is a science writer with the University of Georgia Public Affairs Office.

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