Organic Gardening and Composting
Organic Gardening Explained
From the beginning, farmers have relied on natural substances called humus, or decomposed animal or plant materials to fertilize the soil. This was a healthy way to keep the soil viable for planting for many, many years. When the soil would give out, farmers would move on to better soil. This worked for a while since many people lived off their own land or by barter and trade within communities.
With increased numbers of city dwellers and fewer farmers, chemicals were developed to make fertilization easier for the mass production of goods. This created many short-term benefits because so few farmers were feeding so many people. However, as time went on many farmers began to realize that the benefits were indeed short-lived. The soil gives out much faster when chemicals are used. So, that leads us back to organic gardening. You too might be longing to get back to a more natural way of gardening to keep your soil and food healthy longer.
Making the Transition from Chemical to Organic
If you're considering an organic garden, the transition might sound frightening at the start. After all, how will you fertilize your soil? How will you ensure healthy growth rates? How will your plants ever survive? Nature itself proves it can take care of its own. All you need to do is make sure you add the things nature already uses to help plants grow in the wild. These things might not always appear on your front lawn, but they do exist out in the wild blue yonder. Why do you think thick, lush jungles thrive without anyone to till the ground?
Step One: Bye, Bye Chemicals
The first step in making your garden organic is to get rid of all your chemically-based fertilizers and plant foods. Yes, these can harm plants more than help them if you're not careful. Next, you must rebuild the health of your soil and plants by adding a few natural substances to your soil. These substances might include blood meal, bone meal, fermented seaweed or fermented fish oil. These will give your plants an immediate health boost. You can follow the directions on the package, but don't worry about using too much. There's not much risk of overdose using these natural substances.
Step Two: Build a Compost Pile
A compost pile is a pile of items from your garbage and/or yard that has been turned into organic fertilizer. It might include grass, leaves, twigs, coffee grounds, table scraps, banana peelings, etc. Instead of throwing these things away, you will begin piling them in a bin outdoors or indoors. The goal is to develop a finished compost you can use for organic gardening.
Hot or Cold Composting
There are two methods of composting. The first is cold composting, which is simple and to the point. You simply throw some things together in a leaf pile and wait for it to rot. This is an easy way to do it if you have a very small garden and don't want to put a lot of time and effort into it.
Another method is called hot composting. This is a more complicated and time-consuming process that's used by the serious organic gardener. It's a method in which you take complete control of your compost pile and measure everything that's put into it. You layer it carefully to ensure full growth potential for your organic garden.
No matter what method you use, you must also decide if you will create a compost pile indoors or outdoors. If you live in an area too close to neighbors or in an apartment, you might consider indoor composting. Doing this indoors is easier than it sounds, but it can be smelly if you don't do it right. Follow these steps to create an indoor compost pile:
- First, buy a large plastic storage bin with a lid. Put holes in the bottom of the bin for drainage and set it on a tray to capture leakage.
- Next, use a sturdy cloth (preferrably fiberglass) to create a screen over the holes.
- Fill the bin half full with bedding for worms. This might be dead leaves or shredded newspaper. Next, add worms. Yes - worms! The worms can be red worms or brandling worms from a nursery or bait shop. Earthworms from the yard do not work. Add a couple of pounds of worms to the bin for starters, and put them in the bin on top of the bedding.
- Add kitchen scraps to the bedding each day. To help keep the smell down, stuff the food scraps into the bedding at the start. After a few weeks, you can dig a hole and add scraps in the hole to help eliminate the smell and keep flies away.
- Keep the bin lid open just enough to vent, but still hold in some moisture. If it gets too moist, leave the lid off a while. If too dry, water it slightly with a spray bottle. Stir the compost around occasionally to keep it loose.
After the compost is complete, move the compost to one side of the bin and start a new pile of bedding and scraps. The worms will gradually move to the new pile. You can then remove the finished compost pile for use in your garden.
Build your outdoor compost pile at least a few feet from your home or your neighbor's homes. It should be in an open area for ventilation and near a water hose since you will need to control the moisture of the compost. Also, don't place the pile too close to your garden; it will attract pests.
You can build your compost pile on the ground or in a bin. A bin provides a controlled atmosphere for the pile. Note: Check with your local or state authorities to find out the legalities of composting food scraps before getting started. Some areas might require special containers for composting, while others might not allow composting at all.
Special containers for composting can often be found for around $60 to $100 at nurseries or hardware stores. Be sure to get a container large enough for hot composting - around three to five feet cubic inches.
Understanding Greens and Browns
To make a rich compost pile, you'll need a well-balanced ratio of "greens" to "browns." These are nicknames used to identify the category of matter you use for your compost pile. Greens are usually fresh plant or animal matter that provide plenty of nitrogen, moisture and protein. Browns are dead plants or other similar materials that are carbon-rich and dry. Browns add fluff to the pile to keep it from being so compact. Generally, you'll need to add more dry, dead stuff than fresh green matter to provide breathing room for the tiny microbes during the compost process.
Examples of Greens and Browns:
- Greens: Plant clippings such as grass or flowers (freshly cut), fruit or vegetable portions such as peelings, tea bags, coffee grounds, human hair, milk, wool, egg shells or manure.
- Browns: Dead and dry plants or leaves, straw, pine needles, sawdust, twigs, wood, rice or shredded newspaper.
Items to Avoid:
- Diseased plants
- Fast-growing weeds
- Coal ashes
- Treated lumber
- Feces from dogs, cats or humans (Don't dump the litter box on your pile!)
Collecting Matter for Your Compost Pile
Before starting your compost pile, choose areas where you can collect matter for the pile until you have enough to add. For example, if you plan to use dead leaves and grass, pile this in one area of your yard as you wait for it to dry out. Also, chop your compost matter as small as possible to encourage faster composting.
When layering your compost matter, be sure to spray the pile (sparingly) with a hose every couple of layers to moisten it. It needs to be moist, but not soaking wet. Check the pile every so often to make sure it's not too dry - even in the middle of the pile.
How Long to Completion?
Depending on the attention you give to the pile and what types of matter you use, it might take from six weeks to a couple of years to build a healthy pile. One of the simplest ways to get the process moving faster is to keep your pile stirred up and turn it inside out occasionally. This keeps the microbes busy and the moisture even throughout the pile.
Step Three: Putting Your Compost to Use
Your finished pile will only be about half the size of your original pile, so don't panic. You'll know it's ready because it will look similar to dark soil instead of like a bunch of mixed "stuff." It's now ready to be added to your organic garden.
There are two ways to apply compost to your garden. You can mix it in with your soil, sand or clay to produce an organically-fertile ground. Or, you can spread the compost on top of your soil where you will plant, and it will gradually work its way into the ground. Either way, you're introducing better soil to the soil that's already there - and without chemicals!
For new plants or vegetables, mix the compost into the soil so it can start working right away. A ratio of 1/3 to 1/4 compost to your existing soil will work well. If planting trees, add compost around one inch thick to the area a foot from the tree trunk to where the branches go out.
Use around a 1/2 inch of compost for existing lawns, plants and gardens. Compost that is not quite finished can still be used as mulch. Use the compost as mulch around the plant, but not directly next to the stems.
Step Four: Aid Sickly Plants with Compost Mixture
Keep some compost separate for a "sick" plant remedy. Mix the compost with equal parts of water and let it settle. Pour this over the root of a sick adult plant. If pouring on seedlings, add more water to the mixture first.
With these tips, you'll have a gorgeous organic garden in no time. Growing organically is not the easiest way to go, but it certainly can be less expensive and healthier for the long haul. Contribute to your health and the environment around you by growing organically!
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