Composting offers valuable plant nutrients

Published: Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 10:26 AM.

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.

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