Breakin’ It Down

There’s no denying that composting is great for both the garden and the environment, but how does a person get started? Steve Callis, a master composter and volunteer compost educator, strongly recommends attending one of the free composting workshops offered by Columbia Public Works. They’re held once a month at the Capen Park Demonstration Site, located off Rock Quarry Road.  

 “First, we talk about why you might want to compost, “ Callis says. “Basically there are three reasons: to benefit the environment; to support the community by diverting waste from the landfill; and to obtain finished compost to use in your garden as a soil amendment.” 

He is quick to add that the workshop makes a point of differentiating compost from fertilizer. 

“Compost has a lower percentage of micronutrients,” he says. “It’s a soil amendment, not a fertilizer. Adding compost adds organic matter and nutrients. It improves the aeration and drainage of your soil. It’s especially beneficial when you have a high clay content, like we do here in Boone County.”

The next topic the workshop tackles is whether to use a pile or a bin. This will likely be determined by the size of your yard and garden and whether you live in a rural or more urban location. “A pile is simple and cheap, “ Callis says“Bins make things a little more attractive and hold things in better.” The composting workshops offer a “Presto” bin for free or a “Deluxe” bin for $20.

Another type of bin is called a tumbler.

“A tumbler is a contained vessel, like a barrel,” Callis says. As the name implies, a tumbler allows you to “tumble” the compost by rotating the vessel via a mounted frame. Callis explains how you can easily make your own tumbler out of a plastic trashcan with a locking lid. “Drill holes in it for aeration and then just turn it on its side and roll it.”

Once you know what you’ll be composting in, you need to know what you’ll be composting withComposting materials can be divided into two categories: “browns” and “greens.” Browns are things such as leaves, hay and straw, eggshells and tea bags; greens include vegetable and fruit peelings, grass clippings, coffee grounds and annual weeds. Meat, bones and dairy products should never be added to a compost pile because they may harbor harmful bacteria and attract pests. And no, you should never add human or pet feces. 

Some people advocate adding composting items in carefully planned layers. An easier way is to add items as you accumulate them. You can save them in a “compost pail. If conditions are optimized, you can have a useable soil amendment in six to eight weeks, Callis says.

The compost should be as moist as a wrung-out sponge. If it’s too wet, it will smell. If it’s too dry, decomposition will slow to a snail’s pace. If you find your compost is too wet, turn it and add plenty of shredded newspaper or fall leaves as you do. These “browns” will soak up some of the excess moisture. If you find that it’s too dry, hit it with the hose or watering can.

Finished compost should look and smell like dark, rich soil. Once yours is ready, you can use it in garden beds, on your lawn, around trees and in container plantings.

If you decide composting is not for you after all, the city has its own commercial composting business, Callis says. You can buy bagged compost called Columbia’s Own at Hy-Vee stores, Menards and Wilson’s Garden Center.

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