When you first begin gardening, you hear many sing the praises of mulch and, especially, compost. It really is one of the best things you can do to enrich your soil. It keeps the ground from compacting and keeps the living organisms in the soil healthy. Additionally, it can add to the fertility of your soil, more importantly, it makes those nutrients more available to the plants. No doubt, IT is black gold! Never mind what Jed Clampett found!
I’ve experimented with composting through the years, and honestly, I still don’t have it quite right. I guess part of the reason I’ve never really gotten the knack of it is that I was listening to the more conventional wisdom from people that had a lot of experience with it. The flaw with that plan was that most printed gardening material originates with people that live and garden Back East. Those methods probably work Back East, but you can probably see my problem already. Our growing conditions have very little in common with theirs. The most obvious difference is that compost requires moisture to keep all the microorganisms active and working, breaking down your raw materials. Something we are forced to do without.
We can start with a couple of the basics. The first is that there is hot, fast, composting, which is what you most often read about. It is where the materials you put in the compost bin in the fall, cook all winter and are ready to use in spring, three or four months later.
It is faster, but it requires a good bit more work in our conditions. You have to water it, and turn it so that you are providing oxygen for the microbes to use. It has the benefit of heating up enough to kill weed seeds etc. that you don’t want to reintroduce into your garden. I’m sure other compost enthusiasts could give you more reasons, but since I haven’t been able to create ideal conditions for hot composting, that is all that I know of.
What most of us in the Southwest are more familiar with is the slower, cold method. It will work eventually. When after a year or so you dig into your pile, some will be fully decayed, and some won’t. At that point, you can dig out what is ready and run the rest through again. It may take more time, but it will break down eventually.
I must admit, I have a secret weapon. My husband turns mine for me. With a front-end loader! But since not everyone has one of those handy, we will talk about the fabled “normal” compost pile in the Southwest. Most of the things I will say can apply to everyone but are aimed at those of us who share an arid, windy, harsh climate.
To begin with, when possible, select a site away from your house and in the shade. The beautiful sunshine that we all love, can overheat your pile, and that kills all the organisms that are making your compost! If you must place it in an area that gets full sun, it will still work, but will require more moisture from you. In addition, you can add a tarp or some such over the top to provide a little shade keeping things a little cooler and it will help retain any moisture that is in the pile.
Then the question arises. What can I put into it? That answer can be complicated with proponents and opponents of different methods etc. but the short answer is, what ever will break down! We all know about putting our weeds in and throwing in some kind of manure, but once you start looking around for things to feed your compost, you won’t believe how much household garbage is actually compostable. Cardboard, newspaper, paper towels, pizza boxes, toilet paper roll centers, packaging, refrigerator rejects, hair, (Yes!! Hair!) coffee grounds, house plants that have served their purpose, straw hats, etc. etc. You do need to think about how organic you want to keep your pile and think about inks, pesticides, and such.
There are some that claim that here in the Southwest, you should avoid manure because it will add salts to the mixture and our soil is already heavy with salt. Commercially available products as well as horse and cow manure specifically! Rabbit and chicken litter were better alternatives but also harder to source.
There are proponents of using as many different kinds of plants and brown materials in your compost pile as possible to produce compost with the most nutrition possible.
Some swear that you should leave out kitchen scraps like dairy and bread to help prevent vermin taking up residence in your pile. That one doesn’t make as much sense to me as the vermin will eat potato peels and left-over carrots as much as any other tasty morsels. If it is warm and protected from excessive heat or cold and provides some food? What better place to spend the winter?
One of the principals of keeping a good, working pile is to layer your materials. There is green, for nitrogen and nutrients, and brown to provide humus which helps with moisture retention and soil structure. Many talk of a ratio of 2:1, brown:green. But there isn’t any reason to get out your calculator. Use what you have.
Your pile needs to be about three feet across or more so that it can have enough material/bulk/volume to work with. Bigger is fine, smaller you may have trouble getting the microbes to stay active. The smaller the materials are that you put in, the faster it will break down. The only exception being grass clippings. They can get too compact and suffocate the life out of a pile. Mix them in with other stuff to keep air in it. If your pile gets too open, stamp it down, because too much air will slow progress too! Those little buggers are picky, huh?!
And of course, in our lovely dessert you must add water.
There are many ways to do it. Some are smart enough to add moisture whenever they add material. But unless there is rain, it will need to be monitored as evaporation will soon dry the pile out. You can water the pile any way that is easily done for you. Some set their sprinkler on top of the pile, some like drip tape, or drip irrigation. Easy is the key. Or like me, it will get neglected and your pile will dry out.
With compost being in the “not so much” success category, it would be easy to just abandon the whole thing. But, I’m not giving up! Especially since I found some guys on YouTube that are teaching methods for gardening (and composting) in the desert. The video I watched was “5 Tips for Desert Composting” from the Southwest Victory Gardens. There is also material from the New Mexico Recycling Coalition that has a lot of very practical advice.
One last thing. Brandon in the “5 Tips. . . “ video really warned against using commercial bins and tumblers. They make things way too hot. You want your pile to simmer not boil.
Keep in mind that everything compostable will eventually break down. We can try to speed up the process by giving it favorable conditions, or just wait for nature to take its course.