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  • Mary Haucke

Secrets of a Lifelong Composter

I started composting early in my life in the '50s at my family's Wauwatosa home. Both my parents, John and Elva Hetzel, taught me the basics of composting just by the way they did it on their property's backyard garden. On a side spot of the garden went vegetable and fruit scraps, eventually being worked back into the soil with a shovel. Sometimes I was delegated to pull weeds around growing plants. Mostly Dad did the shoveling; Mom did the planting. I never heard the words “compost” or “mulch.”

Sixty-two years later as a retired dairy farmer, I'm composting as I have for years. I live on a 200-acre farm, so my compost pile is just that – a pile. It has a big old carbon-rich round bale right next to it, and for you to see the whole beautiful look of how I've handled this awesome use of my fruit and vegetable scraps and coffee grounds, you're invited my way anytime to look. I collect nitrogen-rich food scraps in a container for a couple of days until it is full. Then I walk out to the pile with them, uncover a plywood piece, 2 old metal planter boxes, an old Christmas tree, and other small twigs. Using a new or old spot, I tap out the goods and pitchfork some hay forkfuls onto the pile. Turning the soil that is actually being developed underneath is really hard to do. This pile has been in the process now for 14 years. I plan to use some of the soil at the bottom of the compost pile this year for an herb garden with basil, sage, rosemary, thyme, and chives, and perennials I'll dig up from roots I already have in my flower and perennial plots.

Composting is a time-honored method of rebuilding soil depleted by growing plants and requires just four ingredients – water, oxygen, nitrogen from “green” materials and carbon from “brown” materials. All organic matter is composed of carbon and nitrogen but some fall more on the nitrogen side and some fall more on the carbon side.

Carbon-rich materials are dry and woody plants such as aged hay, shredded leaves, sawdust, woodchips, toilet paper rolls, dried grass, straw, wood ash, cardboard and newspaper. Nitrogen-rich materials are wet or recently growing and can include vegetable and fruit scraps, egg shells, grass clippings, coffee grounds, and recently pulled weeds.

A ratio of 1:1 to 4:1 “browns to greens” provides the ideal environment for creating compost. If your compost is not heating up, you may need to add more greens. If it is starting to smell, you can resolve that by adding more browns. A compost pile should be damp but not dripping and the more you turn it to introduce oxygen, the faster it breaks down into earthy-smelling “black gold” for your plants and vegetables. Most backyard compost piles do not heat up enough to compost meat scraps, so be sure to keep them out of the food scrap container in your kitchen.

Compost can be produced in a bin or on the ground. If you live in a city or town, you will want to check to see if there are any ordinances regulating composting. Simply start with a layer of woodchips or twigs, add about three inches of nitrogen-rich materials (“greens”), an inch or so of a high-nitrogen activator such as manure, coffee grounds, or grass clippings. Top that with three inches of carbon-rich plants (“browns”). Add your food scraps as you accumulate them in your kitchen and be sure to cover them with wood chips or another carbon-rich material. Water it well and turn it with a pitchfork frequently. Wait patiently while Mother Nature works her magic and soon you will have rich compost to help your vegetables and flowers grow. Composting helps keep massive amounts of food waste out of the landfill where it creates the greenhouse gas “methane” as it breaks down in the oxygen-free landfill environment.


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