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  This Issue:
    2003 Highlights &
          2004 Changes
    Calendar of Events
    Things to Expect & Do
    An Agave Stalk
          Becomes A Nursery
    Pruning My Red Bird
          of Paradise
    Computer Corner
    Coping with those
          Irritating Weeds
    Who Am I?
    Experiencing the
          Wonders of
    Going Bananas in the
    Banana Recipes
    Small Trees for the
          Arizona Desert
    Spotting Nutrient
          in Citrus Leaves
    Word Wise
    Landscape Water Use
         Results are In
    Desert Willow
          Indigenous Imposter
    Book Review
    Master Gardener
          Journal Index
          of 2003

Two Citrus Clinics

Master Gardener Journal  

S P E C I A L   F E A T U R E

Experiencing the Wonders of Composting

by Mary Steenhoek,
Master Gardener

"Of all the things I've done in my life, nothing has been more satisfying than composting."

The above quote came from a conversation with a fellow master gardener intern, and I am in close agreement. Over and above the miracle of seeing green leafy plants and vegetables being spun out of tiny seeds and thin air, I think composting is the most wondrous natural occurrence there is.

When I was a child in Iowa, we left the fallen autumn leaves on the ground to mix with the final grass clippings of the late fall to make "good soil for the spring." We didn't call it composting then-Nature was just recycling itself. These days we enlarge on that same process, setting up a contained area and controlling nature to produce rich humus.

One of the basic tenets in gardening is to "Feed the soil, not the plant." Or to put it more precisely, if your soil is healthy your plants will be happier and healthier. If compost is mixed into garden dirt (ideally to a depth of 12 inches but at least to 4 inches) the soil will be cooler and not erode as easily, and plants will have fewer diseases.

Water and soil provide 96 percent of a plant's needs; the additional 4 percent (nutrients) are best supplied through natural organic materials. Compost is the best organic fertilizer because nutrients are taken into the plant more slowly than if they were fed a fertilizer. They can absorb what they need when they need it. Furthermore, plants do not burn in composted soil.

And one final important reason to try composting is that you'll be aiding the environment by limiting the number of trucks going to the landfill!

Books say composting may take anywhere from 6 weeks to 6 months, depending on how fast it "cooks."

The four basic elements of composting are:

ORGANIC MATERIALS-These will ideally include a mixture of "green" (grass clippings, kitchen fruit, vegetable scraps) and "brown" (dry leaves, sawdust, newspapers) materials. These green and brown materials should be layered.

WATER-Use just enough water to make the mixture wet; we don't want a pond-neither do we want a dust pile.

AIR-Some sources claim that air helps the process immensely; others say it isn't essential. It was the idea of introducing air to the mixture that seemed most daunting to me at first. "You mean you have to go out and turn it?" I asked out of either fear or procrastination. Since then, however, I have found that turning the compost is one of the most enjoyable steps. Truly, although most books say once a week is a suitable interval, I have occasionally had to restrain myself from going out more than once a day.

I researched several different methods or recipes for do's and don'ts, and the following is the advice I followed.

First you must decide where you will be doing all this. I chose a back corner of our yard that we had once cleared for a garden but never used because there was too much shade. This area seemed perfect because it was surrounded by tall rosemary bushes that would hide the water bucket, spade and pitchfork I would be using. Although some claim that composting requires sun, experience has taught me that it may help but it certainly isn't a necessity. Our compost got very little sun, and I had rich soil in 8 weeks.

We fashioned our compost system ourselves, but there are fancy commercial bins available through catalogs that have built-in hand cranks for aerating and offer other advantages. You can also call the city where you live and order a recycled garbage container that has been converted for the purpose of composting. When it shows up you'll notice that the bottom has been cut off and 1-inch air holes have been drilled in the sides. You can place your bin just about anywhere, but most people opt to keep them out of sight of visitors.

You can turn your compost with a spade or pitchfork, or you can purchase a hand auger to make this chore easier. A lid is optional; composting is not a smelly business for the most part, but gnats and flies love to be an early part of the process and a lid helps contain them. My husband cut a round lid from a board I bought at the Home Depot for $4, and attached a handle.

My first step was to dig a hole about 15 inches deep. In it I threw some kitchen waste, as well as some torn up newspaper and paper egg cartons. I then sprinkled a little of the dirt I had removed from the hole on top, to keep down flies and odors, and finally I poured a little water from a bucket over everything. After that, I added kitchen scraps that I had collected in a plastic container on the back patio every 3 or 4 days, along with some brown leaves and water. Before each addition, I used a spade to turn over what was there.

At one point I went to the bait and tackle shop and bought a couple containers of worms and released them into the pile, then watched them quickly disappear down into their new quarters. Worms aid in the process of decomposition, and their castings enrich the compost and make plants very happy. Experts say red wiggly worms are best.

After eight weeks the bacteria had naturally done their thing. One day I went out to turn the pile, and there was no sign of anything I had put there except for one bedraggled pineapple top that had yet to be recycled. I dug my spade in, and what came up was beautiful rich, loose dirt. I dug deeper and deeper, but all the garbage had been transformed into fluffy, rich-smelling (some say it is like fresh apples) black soil.

I had done it! I had composted! I felt like dancing a jig across my backyard. That which I had feared and avoided doing for so long had transformed itself into a sweet surprise.

And what can you do with this wonderful product? In the spring you can spread it where you want to plant your garden; flowers, vegetables, bushes, and trees all love rich humus. Then as the growing season progresses you can layer it over your soil to keep the ground cooler. I made a 1/4-inch screen sifter that fits over my wheelbarrow top for the purpose of sifting out fine soil-an optional fine point of composting.

There are many ways to compost, and many things I'm certain to learn after this first experiment. If you're reading this and thinking about putting together your first compost pile, my advice to you is JUST DO IT. Another friend says, "Compost happens," and she's absolutely right. For all the research and different recipes available, in the end Nature has its way. All you have to do is begin the process, and it will take over and make you a successful compost maker.

Brookbank, George. Desert Gardening, Fruits and Vegetables. Fisher Books, 1991.

Cromell, Cathy, Jo Miller and Lucy K. Bradley. Earth-Friendly Desert Gardening. Arizona Master Gardener Press, 2003.

Jeavons, John. The Sustainable Vegetable Garden, A Backyard Guide to Healthy Soil and Higher Yields. Ten Speed Press, 1999.

Owen, Dave. Extreme Gardening. Poco Verde Landscape, 2000.

Maricopa County Master Gardener Volunteer Information
Last Updated January 23, 2004
Author: Lucy K. Bradley, Extension Agent Urban Horticulture, University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Maricopa County
© 1997 The University of Arizona, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cooperative Extension in Maricopa County
Comments to 4341 E. Broadway Road, Phoenix, AZ 85040,
Voice: (602) 470-8086 ext. 301, Fax (602) 470-8092