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Composting: The Key to Successful Gardening

by Janet Eckhoff

When I started gardening, thirty years ago, the idea of composting was not just foreign, it was considered weird. I stumbled through my first few years without understanding much about soil, much less the idea of amending soil to improve my gardening efforts.

We moved to a new home and my soil was solid clay. We had a large old septic tank removed and I wanted to develop a flower garden in the spot which was now a huge pile of dirt right outside my back door. I had no idea how to amend the soil so I started by adding sand, which turned out to be a terrible idea and resulted in something that resembled concrete rather than soil.

Through trial and error, and advice from our local nursery, I discovered composted manure. It was expensive to buy enough for such a large area and really hard work to dig it into the clay.

I took the Master Gardeners program and discovered that soil was the most important component of successful gardening. I also learned that it was 'soil' and not 'dirt.' Never, ever call it 'dirt' to another Master Gardener! But even more importantly, I learned about composting and doing it myself.

I had always thought it was difficult, smelly and hard to get composting right. It turned out none of that is true.

Essentially, anything that was once grown, will naturally compost given enough time. I purchased a plastic compost bin online from Gardeners Supply for about $80 and was on my way.

After I moved to the Cape, four years ago, I had our carpenters build a large compost bin in the far corner of our backyard. I was delighted when a friend asked for my advice in renovating her existing beds and building a new compost area.

Nickey had an old composting pile that had been building up for over 10 years so she already had compost to use for her garden renovation this summer. The old site had been contained by wooden pallets which rotted out, essentially turning into compost too. This site was too far away from her kitchen to be practical in the winter months. She chose a new, more accessible site, in front of her tool shed.

After raking out all the old leaves, Nickey mulched them by running over them several times with her lawn mower, then saved them for use in the new compost bin. She also dug out the good soil that was in the bottom of the old composting area to spread on her renovated beds.

We found that the most inexpensive materials were chicken wire and metal stakes. Nickey purchased six 4ft fence stakes (for $3.49 each) and 25ft of 4ft plastic net fencing then built a three sided frame, which was divided into two sections.

For the front of the bin, she used 3ft metal fencing and made it possible to open the front completely for easy access for turning the compost and also for harvesting.

For this first year, the left section of Nickey's new composting area will be used for 'cooking' the compost once it is full. She will then only add to the right side, letting the left side 'cook' for several months. This compost should be ready for use in her garden next spring. She will rotate each side annually, so she always has one side 'cooking'.

After layering mulched leaves and plenty of garden waste, Nickey then added shredded paper from her office and rabbit droppings from her pet lion-head bunny. She also added some of her existing compost as a 'starter.' She had collected worms from for her old compost pile and added them to the new one. Worms help to break down the organic matter and aerate the compost. It is important to keep the compost as damp as a sponge, with the excess water squeezed out.

As she adds her kitchen scraps and grass clippings over the summer she will continue to turn the pile at least once a week to make sure there is enough air for the composting process to accelerate. Smaller scraps, paper and leaves will compost more easily.

It is always recommended not to add meat or chicken to your compost bin as the potential odor will attract animals. I do, however, add all my fish scraps and lobster shells to my own compost bin which also attracts birds. I often find my lobster shells scattered all over my lawn the next morning. But lobster and fish remains are so good for your soil that I happily collect the scraps and return them to the bin. I try to bury them deep into the bin but the birds usually outsmart me.

It is possible to purchase compost starter from your garden supply store but it is not necessary. A shovel full of finished compost or good soil works fine. Also, you can purchase worms online or at the Orleans Farmers Market on Saturdays from Woo's Worms. I would recommend the worms if you don't have a supply in your garden that you can harvest.

I've heard that in some neighborhoods, composting is discouraged because of the potential smell. I have never had a disagreeable smell from my compost. It usually smells like good rich earth. But if you do have a smell, you can add peat moss, sawdust, more shredded dry leaves or shredded paper to help dispel it.

There is also a lot of information about the correct ratio of brown (fallen leaves) and green (kitchen scraps and grass clippings) to use in your compost. Over time, I have found that worrying about the correct ratio is unnecessary and might even prevent a person from tackling the composting process. By adding both green and brown matter, and turning it weekly to aerate it, the compost should be fine.

All gardeners know that you can easily purchase ready-made compost at any nursery or at Home Depot. So why make your own? You save money and you have control over the content of your compost.

I never put weeds into my compost bin. Theoretically, the heat from the composting process should kill all the weed seeds, but I like to avoid any potential for new weeds sprouting in my garden.

Also, if you are growing vegetables, you know what is going into your food. Overall, you have more nutrients in your soil from your new compost and will use less fertilizer. All this helps avoid chemicals in your garden which then helps keep Cape Cod waters sustainable.

So composting is not just good for your garden, it's good for you, your body, your pocketbook, and your community.

Photographs Courtesy of Nicola Burnell

Janet Eckhoff became a full time resident of Cape Cod in 2010. She has spent a week in Brewster, at Ellis Landing, with girlfriends for 30 consecutive years and feels at home here.

A retired General Motors marketing executive, Janet received her Master Gardener certification in 2004. She is a member of the 'In the Weeds' gardening crew for WeCan. She also provides volunteer strategy and marketing perspective for CWO magazine.

Janet has been married for 34 years to her husband Bob, and they have one son, Tristan, who is in nursing school at Brockton Hospital in Brockton, MA.

Janet and Bob live in Yarmouthport with their calico cat named Darla.