Ann Wright: Compost: a gardener’s best friend |

Ann Wright: Compost: a gardener’s best friend

Ann Wright

It’s nearing the end of August and another Nevada County Fair has come and gone. The Master Gardeners were pleased to meet so many people, and provide a variety of workshops and demonstrations.

Scores of “Little Sprouts” painted hand-cut wood flowers so colorful and fun; a scarecrow girl welcomed guests into the hay bale tent, and the scarecrow farmer was the sentry at the compost section. The talents of Master Gardeners certainly go beyond the garden. The Farm Bureau sponsored a scarecrow contest and the scarecrow girl won the first prize.

Many thanks to Master Gardener Jo Hathcock and her husband Peter for their wonderful design and contributions to our part of the Family Farm!

Again, this year Master Gardeners set up a compost display where components for successful “hot compost” were provided. Nitrogen rich “greens” and carbon “browns” were displayed and wire enclosures contained the compost. Daily temperatures showed how hot a compost pile can be. Following the fair, the compost materials were transported to the demonstration garden. At the compost workshop last week, Master Gardeners described the benefits and basics of how to compost. Participants were able to guess the temperatures of the compost pile. The winner of the contest won a compost thermometer and hand-woven crown of greens. This year, Compost King, Dan won the prize for guessing closest to the temperature at the center of the compost (160°F) and 6 inches from the edge of the pile (141°F).

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For those who are not familiar with the process, composting is nature’s way of recycling. Organic waste is biodegraded in an aerobic condition (meaning that it requires oxygen), the result of which is organic matter transformed into a rich substance that can be used to amend soil. Composted material is rich in microorganisms and nutrients benefitting the soil in many ways. The addition of compost to the soil helps decrease the need for chemical fertilizers; it helps conserve water, as it helps soil retain water – compost can retain 100% of its weight in water and is an important consideration to protect our water resources. Overall soil health is improved with composting – and the healthier the soil, the healthier the plants. The composting process also diverts kitchen, yard and garden waste away from landfills where the material decomposes anaerobically (without oxygen) emitting methane gas which is harmful to the environment.

The four basic ingredients for composting are greens (nitrogen), browns (carbons), water and oxygen. Greens include things like vegetable trimmings, egg shells, coffee grounds, lawn clippings and animal manure (not dog, cat or human). Browns include sawdust, chopped woody prunings, pine needles, dry leaves, and newspaper. Meat, bones, fish, dairy or grease products should not be composted.

Hot composting occurs when a 3 to 5 feet wide and tall pile of mixed greens and browns is combined. This volume is necessary for heat-producing bacteria to speed the decomposition process. Heat can accelerate composting and kill weed seeds and pathogens. The bigger the pile, the more heat-producing bacteria will be present; the smaller the pile, the fewer thermophilic-bacteria. But heat is not necessary for decomposition to occur. “Cold” piles will also decompose, but will take longer.

Water and air are also a requirement for composting. Wet the pile so it’s like a wrung-out sponge. Turning the pile helps add oxygen – particularly if there are dense, soggy areas. If the pile dries out, add water then move the material on the outside edges toward the center to promote quicker decomposition. Once the process is complete (a well-managed batch pile will be ready in two to four months) the compost will be ready to use as a top dressing, or incorporated into the soil in the fall.

Join the Master Gardeners at our upcoming workshop, “Growing Cool-Season Vegetables in the Foothills”, from 10 a.m. to noon at the Demonstration garden on the NID business grounds, 1036 W. Main St. in Grass Valley. For more information on composting, refer to the Master Gardener’s website at, look on the menu at the left of the screen and scroll to “Compost Resources”.

There you will find lots of good information on composting. For other home gardening questions, call our hotline at 530-273-0919.

Ann Wright is a Nevada County Master Gardener.

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