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Scott Guiser: Grow Your Own -- You probably have ingredients for a compost pile

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Growing your own compost is kind of a contradiction of terms. Composting is a process of disintegration rather than growth. You probably have just the right ingredients on hand to get started.
 
By mid-October we can expect a frost. Soon, tree leaves will begin to fall. Those tree leaves are a fantastic foundation for a backyard compost pile. Combined with kitchen scraps and vegetable garden cleanup stuff, they provide an excellent ingredient for compost.
 
Composting is the subject of entire books and is indeed a fascinating and complex process of organic matter breakdown. But it’s also a process that happens quite naturally. “Compost happens” is a good expression.
 
Here’s a recipe for making compost that I learned many years ago on a field trip to the Rodale Research farm: Combine equal parts brown stuff and green stuff. Add a pinch of black stuff. Turn occasionally. Maybe add water if it gets really dry. That’s it!
 
Okay – a definition of terms is in order. Brown stuff is stuff that decomposes slowly. It’s high in carbon. Think of brown tree leaves, sawdust, woodchips, paper, straw. Green stuff is stuff that decomposes quickly. Think of grass clippings, kitchen waste, green garden cleanup stuff like weeds and exhausted zucchini plants. It is low in carbon and nitrogen rich. So, the idea is to combine about equal part of these two extremes and create a mix that will break down relatively quickly to form compost, that rich soil amendment that is so beneficial for our gardens.
 
Microorganisms (and some macro ones, too) do the work. That pinch of black stuff in the recipe refers to soil which contains billions of micro-organisms per teaspoon. In fact, these microorganisms are so ubiquitous that this ingredient really isn’t necessary. But it is a nice salute to the tiny critters that will be at work in your compost pile.
 
Pile, heap, fancy container … it doesn’t really matter how you contain the compost ingredients. But in order for the process to proceed efficiently it’s best to have at least one cubic yard of material. That’s a cube, three feet on all sides … you know that wheeled trash container that you drag to the curb each week? A couple of them equals about a cubic yard.
 
Don’t put cat or dog dung into the compost pile. They may contain parasites and other organisms that can cause human disease.
 
Books will tell you not to add diseased plant material. But at this time of the year, everything is more or less diseased. Into the pile it goes. Some will advise not to add weeds with seeds or perennial weeds to the compost pile. Nonsense! Where did those weeds come from? Your garden! Did you pick up all of fallen weed seeds? No.
 
Also, the composting process destroys most weed seeds and all vegetative stuff. So, be very liberal and broadminded about compost pile ingredients. The Cornell publication NRAES-43 is an excellent, free, comprehensive composting guide.
 
Compost happens … and that’s good.
 
Scott Guiser is a former Penn State Extension Service educator in Bucks County.

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