As you begin thinking about your spring vegetable garden, one of the decisions you’ll have to make is whether to garden organically or conventionally.

As you begin thinking about your spring vegetable garden, one of the decisions you’ll have to make is whether to garden organically or conventionally.  If you choose organic gardening, you’ll need to develop a fairly extensive composting system.

Composts have been widely used for vegetable and fruit crop production because compost amendments improve the physical and chemical properties of the soil and help suppress diseases.  My information on composting was provided by Retired Vegetable Specialist Jim Stephens, of the University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS).

What is compost?  Compost is a dark, crumbly material created when microorganisms break down organic matter such as leaves, grass clippings and kitchen waste.

Long before commercial fertilizers were available, gardeners used composts to supply their vegetable gardens with valuable plant nutrients.  Composts are made by layering organic like kitchen table scraps, manure, topsoil, organic fertilizers, even water and air.  As the compost material decomposes, several nutrient elements are released in forms the plants can use.

The compost pile should be about ten-by-ten feet and three-to-five feet high.  To get one started, make a layer of leaves, straw or grass clippings one foot deep and wet it down well.  Next, spread a layer of animal manure four-to-six inches deep over the layer of lawn clippings.  Then spread up to five pounds of ground phosphate or one quart of raw bone meal and one pound of ground limestone on top of the manure.

Then, repeat this layering process until the pile is three-to-five-high.  If you want, you can use five pounds of a complete organic fertilizer instead of rock phosphate and bone meal.  Also a layer of topsoil is commonly added.

In two or three days the compost heap will begin to heat.  Keep it moist, but not too wet, and don’t disturb it for a while.  After three or four weeks, stir the mixture thoroughly.  When the compost is completely broken down into a homogeneous mixture, and no rotted leaves or other material can be seen, it is ready to use in the garden.  This can take anywhere from two months to a year.  Depending on the materials used the time of year, and the skill of the composter.

Use compost in much the same way as you use manure in the vegetable garden.  Broadcast it over the entire garden three weeks or more before planting.  A small amount of compost may be mixed into the soil along each planting furrow when you set out the transplants or plant the seeds.  In all cases, apply compost at the rate of twenty-five pounds per one hundred square feet of the garden.

Many kinds of natural materials can be used successfully in the compost pile.  Some of the most popular materials include straw, leaves, pine needles, grass clippings, shrub clippings, fish scraps and table scraps. Fruit skins and vegetable fibers provide significant amounts of potassium.  Other things you normally throw away, such as tea and coffee grounds and egg shells provide valuable nitrogen to the compost pile.

Successful composting provides relatively inexpensive sources of nutrition for your vegetable garden, and it sources of nutrition for your vegetable garden, and it can also help bring about a change in your own perspective about what is really “garbage” or “refuse” and what can be recycled.  And even if you decide you don’t want to go through the time and trouble of composting, it doesn’t hurt any of us to realize that there’s value in the things most of us commonly throw away.

For more information on composting contact the Gulf County Extension Service @ 639-3200 or visit EDIS website: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edufor circular # ENH 1065, ENH 873 and EES 113.