Grow your garden with garbage

There is a renewed call these days to reduce, reuse, recycle, and with the upsurge of personal and organic gardening, many homes have begun to do their own composting.

Composting is a great way to turn organic garbage (e.g., food scraps) into organic fertilizer. It keeps biodegradable materials out of landfills and puts them to use enriching your soil and helping your plants, flowers and vegetables grow — chemical free.

What exactly is compost, anyway?

Compost is the byproduct of the decomposition of organic materials (food waste or plant remains, for example). It enriches the soil it's added to and acts as a natural fertilizing agent, boosting the health and growth of gardens and household plants. Because it utilizes the organic elements from our daily waste, it also decreases the amount of garbage we add to landfills each year.

How do you start a compost heap?

Composting is as easy to start as separating out the organic materials from your wastebasket every day and placing them in a pile in the corner of your backyard.

The basic elements you need to start your own compost heap are food, air and water. The food you need includes everything from organic kitchen waste to green materials like weeds, grass clippings, straw or woodchips. Moisture is also needed for composting to be successful, but be careful — too much moisture can also damage a compost pile. The other thing you need is aeration, so be sure to turn your pile over onto itself at least once a day in order to get air to every part of your compost heap.

Worm composting, also known as vermicomposting, is another popular method. Worm composting adds vermicast, otherwise known as worm castings or worm manure, to the composting materials, hastening the composting process. This composting method requires the use of a bin or container and some dirt to keep the earthworms contained; otherwise, it's basically the same process.

Where do you keep your compost?

The simplest of compost heaps can be simply tucked away into a corner of your yard. However, there are commercially available composters that make the storage and aeration of your compost much easier. Compost bins keep your compost materials contained and out of sight. Compost tumblers are a more expensive option for composting but speed up the process and make compost more readily available. The constant aeration of tumbled compost can turn out a full drum of completed compost in as little as a month.

What do you do with the finished compost?

Once you've made your compost, you can use it either by placing it directly into the soil or by creating a compost tea, which can act as a replacement for chemical fertilizers.

To make compost tea, fill a large container (at least a couple of gallons) with loose compost and add water. (The container should be full and the compost covered by the water.) Let the mixture sit for about a week, stirring it vigorously at least once a day.

When it's ready to use, strain out any solid particles so that only the liquid mixture remains. Mix the tea with water in a ratio of about 10:1, as the nitrogen content of the pure tea may be high enough to burn your plants.

Spread the leftover solids in your garden bed or add them back to your composter or compost pile.

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