June 13, 2015

1 - Composting can be high-tech or low-tech, complicated, or it can just happen.

Yard and Garden June 13, 2015

Q.

Is composting really worth the trouble? How often must I turn my compost pile? It seems that the compost takes forever to form.

A.

Organic matter in the form of compost is very beneficial to some garden plants grown in our soil. Most of our common vegetable garden plants, annual flowering plants, and many garden perennial flowers grow much better if New Mexico soils are amended with compost. Many xeriscape landscape plants do not need organic matter added to the soil. However, some grow much more rapidly if they have compost added, but some plants for xeriscapes die much more rapidly if organic matter is added to the soil. Whether or not you would choose to add compost to your garden soil depends on which plants you are growing.

You can purchase compost in bags at many garden stores or in bulk from commercial compost manufacturers in some areas of New Mexico. You can also make your own compost. Knowing how beneficial compost is to many of the plants grown in our soils and that throwing compostable organic matter into the garbage helps fill municipal landfills, I prefer to compost as much as I can. The more rapidly the municipal landfills reach maximum capacity and new landfills must be created, often farther from town, the greater the costs to maintain and move landfills.

The process of making compost does not need to be difficult. An old saying is "compost happens". That means organic things naturally decompose to create compost, even if we do not try to cause them to decompose. If we treat them like material in a landfill where material as dry as possible and where oxygen is excluded, composting is very slow, but still happens. If we try to optimize composting to create compost as rapidly as possible, it does become complex, scientific, and time consuming. However, there is middle ground. NMSU Extension Publications can help you by providing guidelines for composting. Please refer to Guide H-110: Backyard Composting and Guide H-164: Vermicomposting. These are two good sources of information to help you compost. Getting exact balances of nitrogen and carbon containing materials in not critical, but maintaining proper moisture and oxygen levels is very important. This is where turning the compost pile come into play. The compost pile should be moistened to keep the composting material about as moist as a damp, wrung-out wash rag. If it is too moist, unpleasant smells may develop. Turning the compost introduces oxygen to cause decomposition to proceed in an aerobic and less unpleasantly fragrant manner. If it is too moist in the center and smells are not a problem, turning is not imperative, but the process of composting will be slowed. Failure to keep the compost pile moist enough will also slow the composting process. This is one way to avoid development of unpleasant fragrances, but by turning the compost frequently and maintaining proper moisture levels will optimize compost development. The frequency of turning the compost pile depends on the composition of materials placed into the compost pile and their rate of decomposition. However, turning the compost once a week to once a month will probably work for you.

This kind of "turning" refers to turning a compost pile with a shovel or spading fork to mix fresh, dry material into the center of the compost pile as well as aerating the compost pile. In the case of the more high-tech compost barrels or tumblers, turning should be done every day, but this is not so great a chore. These high tech composters do require more attention to the composition of the materials added to the composter and patience to let the material completely compost before adding more material or harvesting the compost. Some people love each kind of composting. You can choose your favorite style or you can purchase premade compost. It will definitely benefit your vegetable and flower garden to add organic matter in the form of compost.

Marisa Y. Thompson, PhD, is the Extension Horticulture Specialist, in the Department of Extension Plant Sciences at the New Mexico State University Los Lunas Agricultural Science Center, email: desertblooms@nmsu.edu, office: 505-865-7340, ext. 113.

Links:

For more gardening information, visit the NMSU Extension Horticulture page at Desert Blooms.

Send gardening questions to Southwest Yard and Garden - Attn: Dr. Marisa Thompson at desertblooms@nmsu.edu, or at the Desert Blooms Facebook page.

Please copy your County Extension Agent and indicate your county of residence when you submit your question!