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Composting Tips for Spring

Composting Tips for Spring

By Therese Ciesinski, GardenSMART

Ahhh, March. It’s staying light longer now, and while temps hover around freezing here, it’s warm in the sun, and there’s a fresh breeze in the air. And in my house, the gardening itch has hit, bad. But it’s way too early to plant or even work the soil. So I’m searching for tasks to keep me busy while I wait for warmer weather. One thing I can do is tend to my compost pile. And I can work on it without even going outside.

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I’ve been saving all the trimmings from my houseplants, expired paperwhite bulbs, and pots of dead holiday plants and their potting mix. All of this I’ll chop up and add to my outdoor compost bin as soon as enough snow melts for me to get to it. (I don’t hoard vegetable scraps, eggshells, or most other green materials until I can regularly access the pile, for the obvious reason that they’ll rot, smell, and go moldy if they sit around.)

Here are a few ideas for your spring composting to-do list:

Scavenge for materials. Indoors, shredded newspaper, computer paper, paper bags, cardboard, and other non-glossy paper stock are sources of carbon that can be torn up and added to a pile. Remember when tearing up cardboard shipping boxes to remove all tape. Even paper shipping tape has plastic thread in it, which you don’t want in your compost. Outdoors, get your hands on as many dried leaves as you can.

Keep in mind that the ratio for brown (carbon) material to green (nitrogen) material is about 30 to 1 by weight, so you’ll need a lot more paper, cardboard, leaves, etc. than you will food scraps.

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Chop, chop, chop. It’s tempting to take the quick way out and just chuck entire spent plants, pots of dry soil, leaves and other trimmings into the bin. But chopping them up is the only way they will decompose fast enough to have usable compost in less than a couple of years. Smaller pieces break down quicker.

Include wood ashes, but sparingly. Wood ashes add potassium and calcium, but are alkaline, and too much can throw off the pH of a pile. The microbes that digest materials work best when the pH is neutral to slightly acidic. Add ashes by sprinkling them between layers of other materials, rather than dumping them in one go.

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Add coffee grounds, but go easy on the citrus. Coffee grounds (and filters) provide nitrogen and can be added wet or dry. Orange and lemon peels take a long time to break down – even when chopped up – and earthworms won’t always eat them. 

Finally, be sure to keep meat-related material out of your compost pile. Don’t ever add meat scraps, fat, or bones. Ditto on the animal droppings, with certain exceptions. They attract vermin, and animal waste from meat-eaters like dogs and cats is teeming with bad bacteria – the kinds that will make you sick. Only manure from animals that eat a strict vegetarian diet such as cows, chickens or horses should be used in compost. 

Pay your compost pile a visit and check where it is in the decomposition process. In cold climates it’s probably still frozen. Once it’s thawed you might find some usable compost at the bottom to either add to your garden or use as starter for a new pile. Evaluate what you have, and decide whether to use the materials you’ve been collecting to start fresh or add to the existing pile to get it cooking again.


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