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Jump-start your garden this winter with composting

By: Kara Szymanski | C&G Newspapers | Published November 7, 2018

METRO DETROIT — The gardening season doesn’t have to end just because winter is here. You can still prepare your garden for a successful growing season when the warm weather returns. It may be too cold for many plants to grow, but it’s the perfect time to produce compost for the growing season.

“Composting is an excellent way to produce good soil for your gardens, because finished compost has great physical structure that can help water, air and micro-organisms thrive in your soil, which is a smart thing to do when trying to create healthy plants,” said Sarah Rautio, an educator at the Michigan State University Extension in Iosco County.

With the weather changes and the warming and cooling, it’s the best time to prepare for the growing season because of the frosting and defrosting, which help with decomposition.

Compost is a valuable additive that gardeners use to boost their seedlings. It is decayed organic material that over time has been broken down by micro-organisms into a rich, useable fertilizer or soil that can boost the potential of your plants and flowers in your garden in spring and summer.

Composting is also a good way to help the environment.

“Composting is a great way to reduce waste going into the landfill and create a sustainable source of nutrients for your home garden. Food products in landfills do not decompose the same way as they do in nature, and end up taking up large amounts of space in addition to producing greenhouse gases. Composting diverts food waste from landfills, preventing them from filling up as quickly, and turns it back into valuable soil,” said Abigail Harper, an educator at the Michigan State University Extension in Ingham County.

Compost can be made with contributions of browns, greens and water from your house and yard.

Browns are things that you would find in your yard, especially during fall cleanup. Materials like leaves, sticks, hay, branches, dried grass clippings and dirt are considered browns and make up 80 percent of compost.

Greens include fruit and vegetable food waste, grass clippings and coffee grounds.

“Browns include leaves, twigs, sawdust, cardboard, etc. Greens include lawn clippings, plant clippings, vegetable scraps, etc.,” said Rautio.

“The ratio of green to brown matter is important. Food will most effectively compost with a 3-1 ratio of brown matter (dried leaves, wood chips, animal bedding, etc.) to green matter (fruit and vegetable scraps). Compost also needs to have proper airflow in order to decompose effectively — too much water and not enough air will cause food to produce molds and smells that people likely want to avoid. The easiest way is to create a pile in your backyard that you manage inputs too (having a bucket of brown matter to add every time you had food scraps) and can turn easily. Also, composting is not an exact science! You'll learn by adjusting your own ratios and figuring out what works best by watching,” Harper said in an email.

“There's so much to learn from composting. It creates a home for a web of living organisms — good compost will have activity of worms and other digesters that create a rich, black soil. Getting your hands dirty is the best way to see if your compost is active,” she said.

According to the Michigan State University Extension, food scraps and yard waste make up 30 percent of what we throw away.

Brown materials provide carbon to the compost, and greens provide nitrogen and other nutrients.

“Any fruit and vegetable scraps can be composted; however, larger pieces will take longer to break down. It’s also best to avoid meat products or foods heavy in oil, as home composting generally doesn't get to the heat necessary to break down these components effectively without attracting pests (like rats and other rodents),” Harper said in an email.

Even in the winter, snow can help to keep your compost warm, as it is a good insulator. Worms are often added to compost to accelerate the decomposition speed.

“People should compost year-round. While the rate of decomposition will slow in the winter due to air temperatures, it will speed up again in the summer. Worm bins (using red wiggler worms) are a great indoor choice for composting, as they break down food scraps quickly and can be done in small areas,” said Harper.

Materials in compost will decompose in the middle first, so it must be turned every once in a while depending on the temperature and the size of your materials.

There are many different ways to compost: indoors, outdoors, cold, hot, and even different bins or ways to contain it.

Composting indoors can be a good choice for those who don’t want to go out into the cold during the winter but still want to utilize their food scraps, coffee grounds and possibly house plant remains to make compost. Your house also contributes to the warming of the compost.

Composting outdoors requires going outside to add to the compost, but you are closer to the materials that you will need, and the smell will be outside.

Hot composting requires enough nitrogen — greens — to get the pile heated up and is much quicker. If the compost is built correctly, it will heat up quickly. A healthy temperature for hot composting is 140 degrees at the core.

Cold composting requires minimal effort but can take a lot longer. There are two steps to do this — make a pile and wait. With this type of composting, weeds and diseased plants should not be added, as with no heat there is nothing to kill off the weed seeds and pathogens to prevent them from spreading to your landscape.

Some ways to compost are with bins, piles and tumblers. You can use a variety of different bins to make compost, and some even have doors at the bottom to continuously remove compost that has finished. Piles can be placed in your yard and cost no money. Tumblers are popular because they make turning your compost even easier with the handle to rotate the bin.

The smaller the materials you put in your compost, the faster they will decompose.

When starting a compost pile outside, select an area where you would like to begin and decide what type of composter you would like to use, then decide what types of materials you will add to the compost and shred any big pieces. Moisten materials as they are added and cover with a tarp or lid. Water provides moisture to help encourage bacteria and other organisms that break down the materials.

Composting can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of years.

“If you are debating whether to start a compost because you are not sure how to do it, don’t worry. Go ahead and get started and learn as you go. One of the most important first steps is to not put certain items in the compost pile or bin, such as dairy and meat scraps, since they will attract wild animals. And be mindful of putting any diseased plant scraps in it too, unless you are certain you can elevate the temperature of the inside of your pile to a point that kills off those diseases. Otherwise, almost any plant waste can be put there. Even if you just get started this fall, you can begin a more deliberate effort in the spring to use proper proportions and turning methods,” said Rautio.

A question many people wonder is, “How will I know when my compost ready?” Your compost is ready when it is a rich brown color, earthy smelling and has a crumby feeling. The presence of bugs means that your pile is composting correctly.

For more information on composting and the MSU Extension, visit canr.msu.edu/soils_composting/index.