Composting, Compost Tea and Mulch

From Chapter 10 of "Healthy Garden Healthy You" by Milo Shammas

The most common form of composting is basic and simple. Gather up as many leaves as you can one morning. Rake them into a pile. After dinner that night, collect all your vegetable kitchen scraps, throw them on top of the pile and wait. Do it again daily with the kitchen scraps. Keep adding weekly with the yard litter.

This approach works well if you have a ranch-like setting and do not mind the odor of a decomposing pile on your property. It also works if you have an area that is out of sight, or if you don’t care what your guests think of how your house smells when they come to visit. I didn’t mind for a long time, even in the middle of Los Angeles with my barbeque going every weekend and a pile rotting away right next to it. Most people can create a compost pile, especially if you have a large yard that generates a lot of leaves, pruned branches and other bulky stuff. However, a giant heap is not enough. When it comes to handling messy kitchen waste, new and experienced compost enthusiasts need an enclosed composting bin to make the process carefree and convenient.

I have composted in open piles for almost 20 years. Often my dog digs into it and destroys it, or possums, raccoons and skunks get into it for worms and other kitchen scraps. When Los Angeles began a composting program in the early 1990’s, I was finally able to set clear boundaries by getting a free, enclosed compost bin. This was a major improvement over my open pile, because it gave the compost form and structure and didn’t look too bad. Besides solving critter problems, this method hides the shiny left over salads with chopped tomatoes covered with olive oil along with a yellow splash of banana peels. It all disappears from view.

Enclosed compost bins provide visual relief, and you can put them just about anywhere. To make a home composting system work, you need to make each stage of the process quick and easy. You need a container for collecting fruit and veggie trimmings in the kitchen along with a weatherproof enclosed composter, which can range from a covered pit to a modified garbage can to a state-of-the-art tumbler. If your composter is located more than 15 feet from your back door, you may need a transfer station container (sort of a drop off point) for kitchen overflow on its way to the composter itself. A small garbage can with a lock-on lid or a 5-gallon bucket stationed on your deck or patio are perfect for this.

A common myth about composting is that you can speed it up. Composting works best slow and steady. Don’t try to rush it. I have made smoking-hot batches of compost dozens of times, and each one took a lot of work. The results I got from pushing the composting process to go faster were no better than compost dug from the base of a slow-rotting pile or the ground floor of a stationary composter.

No composter can make compost in three weeks. It takes 10 weeks minimum, and that is if you know your way around composting, you have warm weather, a good composter and a balance of materials to put in it. Slow speed is good and natural for compost. You don’t have to fight it, and fancy equipment can take you only so far in speeding it up anyway.

Another myth is that composting is a productive process that yields a good return of the finest soil amendment a gardener can have. Certainly, compost is valuable stuff, but the truth is you do not get very much of it. You can drop six months’ worth of potato peelings, bygone bread and salad greens into an enclosed composter and harvest only enough compost to plant two tomatoes. Composting is a reductive process. You get back less volume than you put in. But so what? The more important purpose of home composting is to capture and recycle organic waste before it leaves your yard. Enclosed composters make this easy.

A final myth is that compost requires regular mixing and turning. True, a well-mixed mass of evenly moist compostable stuff is more likely to rot quickly than unmixed pockets of this or that, but you only need to turn compost occasionally. If you are patient, you need not mix and turn at all, though I have found that magic happens when I lift my stationary composter to move it to a new place and then go back and fluff through the old material with a digging fork. Two weeks later, the rough compost has ripened to ready, and I get to have a compost harvest day. That always feels like a party.

Compost Tea
You do not drink compost tea, but your plants will love you for it. Compost tea adds the needed microbes to create a truly diverse and dynamic soil. Brew a bucket of tea to delight every plant in your home or out in the garden. It is fun and easy to make. Simply add water and a little organic molasses to top quality compost, potting soil or planting mix, and off you go! To make good compost tea, the more aged the material the better. If you can add some worm castings and seaweed extract, you will have so many nutrients that your plants will explode with vigor. If you want to kick it up a notch, add a little liquid organic fertilizer.

Here’s how to do it. Prepare two empty 5-gallon buckets. Fill one with water and let it sit for 24 hours. This allows the chlorine gas to evaporate. Fill the empty bucket with about 1 gallon of composted organic material and 1 ounce of unsulfured molasses (extra food for the microbes). Fill it with the de-chlorinated water to about ¾ full. Stir the soil and water well until it is dark and completely wet. If you have an aquarium pump, you can insert the pump hose into the bottom of the bucket, turn it on and let it brew for 2 to 3 days. Stir the brew with a stick occasionally to help mix the soil and separate the microbes from the solid soil particles. Apply the strained tea with a standard pump sprayer both to the top and bottom of leaves. The bottom of the leaves is where the "stoma" openings are located. (Stoma is Greek for "mouth.") Here the solution can absorb best. Or apply it directly to the soil. Do not throw the solid material away. Add it to the soil as mulch around any plant in the garden. Use the tea immediately after you brew it. The microbes will die shortly after the oxygen source is removed. That’s it. Tea is fun in the sun. Sit back and watch your plants grow.

Mulch, The Final Layer
I believe strongly in mulching. I have practiced it for many years for both my home vegetable gardens and on the Dr. Earth farm. In my experience, mulching brings many benefits. It keeps the soil moist, friable, easy to cultivate and helps regulate the soil temperature away from extremes. Mulches also help to keep ground moisture from evaporating. They help to regulate water by reducing evaporation-respiration. They also protect the soil from sunburn and protect the available nutrients. They minimize soil erosion due to wind and rain. Additionally, mulches create an environment hospitable for a bio-diverse set of microorganisms, which supports fertile soils. Finally, mulches act as a carbon reservoir and keep rainwater from splattering mud on your plants and walkways. This makes your garden look nice, too.

Mulch is like an artist taking the final brush stroke to a masterpiece painting; it completes it. Besides making a garden look good, mulches also have many functional attributes. Mulches help to suppress weed seeds from germinating, which ultimately means less work later weeding the garden. I have tested almost every kind of mulching material available. They all have some benefit to the garden, some more than others. For example, partially decomposed hay is far better than coarse, freshly baled hay. Composted grass clippings are more effective than raw green clippings. The same holds true for leaves and all yard wastes.

I have worked in many community gardens with limited budgets and resources. I used to know a young Guatamalan gardener named Martha in the Vernon section of Los Angeles. She taught me that newspaper, cardboard or even carpet with holes drilled in it makes for effective mulch. Not pretty, but they work. These are all options you have available to you. Although some may be unsightly in the garden, they are all effective.

For attractive, dark brown, organic mulch use a good planting mix or compost. It makes a huge difference and gives it that finishing touch, the final stroke of your gardening project to make it clean and attractive. Generally, put down mulch about 3 to 5 inches thick in your vegetable garden and around the base of all fruit trees.

Building a nutrient-rich, healthy garden soil with mulch will greatly benefit the garden, especially if it is organic compost or planting mix, rather than straw, newspaper or carpet. As the organic materials slowly break down, they contribute to the nutrient density of the soil, build humus reserves, conserve water and help to build friable soil structure.

Milo Lou Shammas
Founder and Formulator

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