Gardening: Diligence, redworms keys to composting at house | Columnists


An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. This has never been more evident to the general public than it was last year. A good diet and adequate exercise keep us healthy. And when it comes to plants, good health begins in the soil. One of the best preventive agents is compost.

Compost is decomposed organic material that you can mix in the garden or topdress over lawn. It improves pore space to increase the oxygen that roots need. At the same time, it has good water retention. When organic matter breaks down, nutrients are released. It doesn’t happen spontaneously. Microorganisms like fungi and bacteria do the job. These microbial associations improve plant health and reduce pest problems.

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Active horse manure compost heaps (Courtesy Hardy Brown, Chainey Briar Stables in Ridgeville)

In a recent experiment, it was found that the horse manure compost became twice the size of the soil dug from the field. Hardy Brown / Chainey Briar Stables / Provided

The quality of the compost is important. We recently ran an experiment in the Trident Technical College’s horticultural program that grew coleus in ditches, mushroom compost from a bag, and freshly composted horse manure from the Chainey Briar Stables in Ridgeville. It was no surprise that the horse manure compost became twice the size of the soil dug from the ground. However, the bagged mushroom compost performed only slightly better than the soil, which shows the power of quality compost.

You can make your own compost, although it is difficult for most homeowners to make large quantities. It can be purchased locally in bulk at the Bees Ferry Landfill or from local landscape suppliers. It can also be collected in bags in garden centers. Bags that were on the shelf may not be as vibrant. While you are still getting the benefits of organic matter, the nutrients and microbial activity may be lower, as shown in our experiment.

Composting at home is not difficult, but it does require care. It is not enough to just throw scraps of food on a pile of clippings. You need a brown to green ratio to keep it really active. Browns are a source of carbohydrates for microbes like straw, twigs, paper, or dry leaves. Greens are fresh ingredients that provide nitrogen and enzymes, as well as moisture. The greens include clippings, leftover food, or coffee grounds. Avoid things like meat or dog feces that risk pathogens or attract scavengers.

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You will occasionally want to turn the pile with a pitchfork to maintain ventilation. The humidity should be around 50 percent, which can be measured with a simple humidity meter. An active compost heap is hot, which means the microbes are active. The temperature should be around 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Compost can be ready for the garden in four to eight weeks.

Redworms in vermicomposter provided Tony Bertauski

Red worms consume leftover food when added to a vermicomposter. Tony Bertauski / Provided

Vermicomposting adds worms to the mixture. Red worms, not earthworms, will take on the job of consuming leftover food. Worm waste or castings are nutrient-rich. Redworms can be purchased locally or online.

Vermicomposting can be done in a plastic container. Drill small holes in the bottom corners to allow drainage. Larger holes can be drilled at the top for air exchange. Add bedding material such as shredded paper to provide the source of carbohydrates. Soak the paper, squeeze out the excess, and then throw in scraps of food as soon as you get them.

I hate wasting that black compost tea down the drain holes so we bought a vermicomposting tower. It’s a pile of trays that are easier to work with and compost can be harvested gradually. More importantly, compost tea will collect in the lower bowl. A spigot makes it easy to fill watering cans to give flowers and vegetables a lively nutrient boost.

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Some sources suggest that vermicomposting can be done indoors. I’ve found that fruit flies are pretty hip for this idea. I keep the vermicomposter in the back yard. Not only do they keep your kitchen fruit flies free, but they also attract black soldier fly larvae. These are large, flat maggots that love leftover food as much as red worms do. You are free, courtesy of nature. And they do serious work. I’ve seen them use up watermelon peel down to the thin green skin in less than a week.

And if you have chickens, you have protein snacks. Throw some maggots on the floor and watch them go crazy.