In the soft, warm bosom of a decaying compost heap, a transformation from life to death and back again is taking place. Life is leaving the living plants of yesterday, but in their death these leaves and stalks pass on their vitality to the coming generations of future seasons. Here in a dank and moldy pile the wheel of life is turning.
Compost is more than a fertilizer or a healing agent for the soil's wounds. It is a symbol of continuing life. Nature herself made compost before man first walked the earth and before the first dinosaur reared its head above a primeval swamp. Leaves falling to the forest floor and slowly moldering are composting. The dead grass of the meadow seared by winter's frost is being composted by the dampness of the earth beneath. Birds, insects and animals contribute their bodies to this vast and continuing soil rebuilding program of nature.
The compost heap in your garden is an intensified version of this process of death and rebuilding which is going on almost everywhere in nature. In the course of running a garden there is always an accumulation of organic wastes of different sorts-leaves, grass clippings, weeds, twigs-and since time immemorial gardeners have been accumulating this material in piles, eventually to spread it back on the soil as rich, dark humus.
In many parts of the world today, composting is practiced just as it was hundreds or even thousands of years ago. Farmers and householders in the less industrialized regions of Asia, Africa and Europe have no source of commercial fertilizer, and consequently make rough compost piles of cattle manure, garbage, human wastes, straw, and weeds. These piles decay into humus, which is then used as a soil conditioner for the kitchen garden and farm fields. Such compost is not very rich in plant nutrients, but it is a manageable form of humus that maintains the tilth and general condition of soil that has been used for generations.
Garden waste material can be converted in many ways into a black, fragrant, crumbly, partially decomposed organic residue called compost.
In all composting your objective is to arrange organic waste material in such a way that soil bacteria and fungi can thrive and multiply as they break it down. The bacteria are the converters of the raw material and they must have a workable environment. They need moisture, air and food.
Make the compost with a mixture of green and dry materials. Grass clippings, green weeds, lettuce leaves, pea vines and other succulent materials contain sugar and proteins that are excellent food for the bacteria. They are decomposed rapidly. Sawdust, dry leaves, small twigs and prunings contain very little nitrogen and decompose very slowly when composted alone. A mixture of the green and the dry is what you want.
Gardeners have found that the best way to build a compost pile is to put a layer of mixed fertilizer, manure and garden soil between each layer of waste material.
You start the pile by spreading a layer of the organic refuse about 6 to 8 inches deep. Spread over this layer the mixture of manure, garden soil and fertilizer. Both manure and a commercial fertilizer should be used to give the bacteria the mineral nutrients they need. The greater the amount of fertilizer, the richer the compost will be. A good average amount in each layer is 2 cupfuls of ammonium sulfate or blood meal per square foot. Use more with dry waste material, less with green material.
Wet down the fertilizer layer just enough to carry the chemicals through the layer; don't wash them out with heavy watering.
In areas where the soil is on the acid side, adding a cupful of ground limestone, crushed oyster shell or dolomite lime to each layer will give you a less acid product. Add another layer of vegetable matter, spread the soil-manure chemical layer over it and wet it down. Repeat the layering process until you run out of material or the pile is 4 to 5 feet high.
Keep the pile as wet as a squeezed-out sponge. In a dry, warm climate, it may need water every 4 to 5 days. The size of the woody material will affect the rate of decomposition. If dry leaves go into the pile as they are raked up, decomposition will be much slower than if the leaves are shredded.
Under normal conditions the pile should be turned 2 to 3 weeks after you start it, then about every 5 weeks. It should be ready to use in 3 months.
Fast, high-heat method
You can shorten the ripening time for a compost to a few weeks if all the refuse material is put through a shredder before building the pile. The smaller pieces decompose faster since more surface is exposed to decay bacteria. Shredding also makes a fluffier mixture, allowing more efficient air and water penetration. If renting or buying a shredder is not in your program, shred all large leaves with a rotary mower.
If the pile is built when the weather is warm, you'll see heat waves rising above it in 24 to 30 hours. Turn the pile to mix the material and follow up with a thorough watering. It will heat up again, and in a few days be hot enough to require turning again. Each time you turn it, move outer materials toward the center where heat and moisture encourage decomposition.
One distinct advantage to this fast, high-heat method of composting is the destruction of most of the weed seeds.
The compost is ready for use when it has cooled, has a dark and rich color, is crumbly and has that good earth fragrance.
It pays to divide your composting area into three piles or compartments. The first compartment is for the daily collection of the organic waste-vegetable harvest refuse, vegetable peelings from the kitchen, coffee grounds, egg shells, shredded paper, small prunings, wood ashes, and weeds green or dry. The next compartment is for the working compost to which no additions are being made but frequent turning is the rule. The third compartment is for the finished or nearly finished product.
moonGROW.com (http://www.moonGROW.com ) is a website delving into Moon Phase and Zodiac Sign Organic gardening. By Gene DeFazzio, this site provides the basics of both astrological and organic growing for the home gardener.