Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
May, 2006
Regional Report

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A great compost bin, but obviously this one is not a working pile!

Let's Compost!

Spring is finally here, and if you're like me, as you gaze happily at those beautiful daffodils, your thoughts turn automatically to the garden. As we do garden clean-up, it seems a logical time to talk about the what, where, why, and how of composting.

A home compost pile may not be the best solution for everyone, but even if you don't put a compost pile in your own backyard, cities and villages now demand that we send all yard waste to a municipal composting facility. It's almost impossible not to give some consideration to the composting process.

First, let me give you a few facts. Generally, organic materials comprise about 25 percent of residential waste, most of which is compostable, such as paper and kitchen waste. In fact, paper products make up about 30 percent of our residential waste. This includes newspapers, junk mail, paper plates, and wrapping. Most of this can be composted; all of it can be recycled.

Why should we compost? Aside from the conservation aspect of reducing our waste and not filling up our landfills, compost is a valuable soil amendment and an effective mulch. Compost improves soil structure, promotes plant growth, and helps soil store nutrients to keep them available for plants. Research shows that plants mulched with compost are more disease-resistant and sturdier than plants grown without compost.

What exactly is compost? It is what you get when organic materials decompose. It is a fascinating process, one that nature pretty much takes care of by itself; although with a little help from us, composting can happen more quickly.

Compost can be used on flower and vegetable gardens, around trees and shrubs, and when seeding new lawns. As a mulch, compost suppresses weeds, helps maintain moisture levels, controls soil temperature, and prevents soil erosion.

How does compost happen? The final product is organic material processed by decomposers such as bacteria, fungi, and invertebrates such as insects and earthworms. These microorganisms get food, nutrients, air, and water from the pile of plant matter, and as they get to work, they produce heat, which is why compost piles heat up. As these creatures move through the plant material, they break it down and ingest it. Then as they die, they put back the nutrients they ingested, making them available to plants.

Once you've decided that a compost pile is a good idea, what is the best location for it? First of all, if possible, give the pile a site with partial sun. This will help heat things up and make your compost happen faster. Full sun can be drying, and full shade can keep the pile too cool and damp for efficient decomposition.

Avoid sites with drying winds, and make sure the pile is easily accessible without interfering with yard activities. Last of all, situate it out of the view of neighbors. A good working pile is not offensive in smell or appearance, but just to be on the safe side, put it where neighbors won't have anything to complain about.

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