Keep com­post­ing sim­ple for bet­ter re­sults

The Progress-Index - At Home - - GARDENING - By Lee Re­ich

Look on the shelves of al­most any store or in any cat­a­log selling plants and gar­den­ing equip­ment and you’ll find “com­post ac­ti­va­tors” of­fered. These mix­tures con­tain ben­e­fi­cial micro­organ­isms, nu­tri­ents, and/or more es­o­teric sub­stances meant to speed com­post­ing or im­prove the qual­ity of the fin­ished com­post.

De­spite the ben­e­fi­cial or­gan­isms and nu­tri­ents they con­tain, how­ever, com­post ac­ti­va­tors are gen­er­ally nei­ther needed nor cost-ef­fec­tive. If you could take a mi­cro­scope to the pea vines, old del­phinium stalks and let­tuce plants tossed onto a com­post pile, you’d see they are al­ready seething with micro­organ­isms, just what’s needed to get de­com­po­si­tion un­der­way. As raw ma­te­ri­als are piled to­gether, these micro­organ­isms get to work and rapidly mul­ti­ply, as long as they also have suf­fi­cient mois­ture and air.

What does com­post pile need?

Com­post­ing micro­organ­isms are most hun­gry for the el­e­ments car­bon and ni­tro­gen, the ideal be­ing a ra­tio of about 15 parts car­bon to 1 part of ni­tro­gen. (This need is anal­o­gous to our own caloric needs mostly for car­bo­hy­drates, which are high in car­bon, and pro­tein, which is high in ni­tro­gen.)

Car­bon as a com­post food comes from bulky, old plant ma­te­rial, such as straw, hay, au­tumn leaves, wood chips, and old weeds and gar­den plants. It would be im­pos­si­ble to stuff suit­able quan­ti­ties of any of these ma­te­ri­als in a box of “com­post ac­ti­va­tor.”

Ni­tro­gen could be squeezed into a box but could also be added by sprin­kling ni­tro­gen fer­til­izer or lay­ers of ma­nure on the pile as it grows. Young, suc­cu­lent weeds and gar­den plants (such as thin­nings of ex­cess car­rot seedlings) and kitchen scraps are also high in ni­tro­gen. Sprin­kling the con­tents of a box of com­post ac­ti­va­tor on a com­post pile is an ex­pen­sive way to sup­ply ni­tro­gen, and brings no spe­cial ben­e­fits be­yond what the above-men­tioned ma­te­ri­als would bring.

No need to get too ex­act­ing about ra­tios of ni­tro­gen and car­bon be­cause they are in­flu­enced by such things as the form of the nu­tri­ents and the par­ti­cle sizes of the ma­te­ri­als that carry them.

Keep tabs on progress

Mon­i­tor the progress and health of your com­post pile with your eyes and your nose — your eyes prefer­ably on a ther­mome­ter. As long as the ma­te­ri­als are moist, a pile that doesn’t heat up in­di­cates in­suf­fi­cient ni­tro­gen or ex­cess car­bon. A pile that smells bad sig­nals the op­po­site. Ei­ther con­di­tion can be cor­rected by adding the needed ni­tro­gen or car­bon ma­te­ri­als.

Or by giv­ing it time. A pile de­fi­cient in ni­tro­gen, or built slowly over a long pe­riod, may never get hot but, in time, will turn to rich, brown com­post. Be pa­tient.

The only com­post piles that might be can­di­dates for com­post ac­ti­va­tors would be those odd­ball piles built al­most ex­clu­sively of off­beat ma­te­ri­als, such as saw­dust, or with a lot of plant de­bris that had been heav­ily sprayed with pes­ti­cides. Such piles could lack the nec­es­sary or­gan­isms, tem­po­rar­ily at least (saw­dust alone is se­verely de­fi­cient in ni­tro­gen).

Even then, some soil and fer­til­izer would likely serve just as well. So pay at­ten­tion to the ra­tio of the var­i­ous things you add to your com­post pile, and then watch and smell what hap­pens. What­ever you do, don’t fret too much over de­tails. Any pile of or­ganic ma­te­ri­als, kept moist, will even­tu­ally turn to com­post.


In this un­dated photo, no spe­cial ac­ti­va­tors other than the el­e­ment of time are needed to turn “garbage” into rich, brown com­post in New Paltz, N.Y.

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