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Compost: Why and How

At Sourwood Creek Farm, we are trying to get to the point where we don't have to outsource our inputs. We want to find ways to create, on the farm, everything that we put on our plants and in the soil to help them thrive. This is a learning process as we are figuring out what our plants need and how to address those needs. One of the most important inputs we use for our plants is compost. Compost helps provide needed nutrients for the plants and helps establish a strong soil system that continues to aid the plants as they grow and flower. I shared how we are learning about vermicomposting in an earlier post. It is all part of the journey in making sure our soil is as healthy as it can be.

What, exactly, is compost?

Compost is the result of organic matter such as leafy materials, food waste, and woody materials that break down and decompose over time. The result creates a rich substance full of beneficial microorganisms and plant nutrients. Composts can vary in their level of decomposition, ingredients, and microbial activity. Technically, to be compost, the mix has to be 10 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen (1). Below, I discuss carbon and nitrogen and how to get the right combination of the two in a nutritional compost.

Within the idea of compost, there are different forms or grades of compost. For more information on the different kinds of compost, I highly suggest Jesse Frost's book The Living Soil Handbook. For the purposes of this blog post, we are going to talk about nutritional compost and mulching compost. Nutritional compost is probably the kind of compost most have used or made. This compost combines ingredients containing nitrogen and carbon to make a mix that feeds your plants what they need. Nutritional compost can be added and worked directly in to your growing beds without risk of overloading the soil with high amounts of nutrients. Beds can then be topped with a compost that has not completely broken down, that still has large pieces of organic matter, a mulching compost. It will not have as many nutrients because it is high in carbon, but it makes a great cover around the plants to keep weed pressure down, moisture and nutrients in, and provide a great place for beneficial organisms to thrive.

At Sourwood Creek Farm, we use our food waste combined with grass clippings, leaves, used straw, woody materials, plant waste from the farm, and manure-filled wood shavings from the chicken coop to create our compost. By integrating the waste from the chickens, we are able to create a nitrogen-rich compost and close a loop in our farm ecosystem. We feed the chickens weeds and food scraps, they create waste and keep weed pressure down, the waste is incorporated into the compost that then provides nutrients for the flowers we grow. Because the chicken manure is combined with brown, carbon-rich materials it creates a balanced compost that can be applied to the beds without risking over-fertilizing, though we do test our soil every year to ensure that that does not happen.

How do you get started composting?

You can compost in containers, contained spaces, or in a pile. However, keep in mind that oxygen and water are necessary to help the materials to break down more quickly. You don't need anything fancy. We simply pile our materials in one spot. We have a few piles going at a time, some more decomposed than others. In the past, we have used a small spinning compost maker that aerates the waste as it spins.

The compost pile

To make compost, find a sunny location that will get rain. To create a nutritional compost, we combine brown organic matter (carbon) and green organic matter (nitrogen). Brown materials consist of materials high in carbon: wood chips, straw, paper, other woody materials. Green materials consist of materials high in nitrogen: grass clippings (without seed heads), kitchen scraps, garden waste (not diseased), and leaves.

(To the left, you can see the shavings from the chicken coop, lots of farm debris, and piles of leaves).

Create a pile and make layers. For example, start the pile with leaves, add grass, straw, more leaves, food waste, brush, farm plants that are not diseased and do not have seeds, wood chips, chicken waste, leaves, and so on. I will often dump ingredients in layers and turn the layers over every few weeks. Turning consists of a pitchfork and a block of time to turn the pile over. (In the picture below, I am in the process of turning a pile over. You can see the different materials in the pile)

The middle of the compost pile

As the pile begins to break down and decompose, you can strain or pull out larger chunks and keep them in the pile to continue decomposing. The finer compost becomes a nutritional compost to dress the growing beds. The less decomposed compost can be used as mulch.

I am excited to get really nerdy and pull out one of my kid's microscopes to take a look at all the activity happening in my compost pile this spring.

Composting is the bedrock of creating healthy soil for our farm. I hope that you give composting a try this year.


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