STARTING A COMPOST PILE (AND INTEGRATING IT INTO YOUR GREENHOUSE OPERATION)
It’s considered “black gold” by every natural farmer, gardener, and agriculturist out there – at least, among the wisest and most successful ones. Compost is, to give it the best definition possible, Mother Nature’s most effective fertilizer and plant food. But when you get down to the nitty gritty of it, it’s really so much more than that.
For organic and chemical-free gardeners specifically, compost is one of the three most essential gardening tools every grower should have on hand. Its uses are more varied and vital to plant health than one could ever imagine at first. But one might wonder: is it just as important to a greenhouse operation as it is to a small garden?
The quick answer: absolutely. The long answer: it has amazing impacts on ANY growing system, whether in the farm or garden, and especially for the welfare of soil health and overall sustainability. Beyond the bigger picture environmental benefits though, it also plays very practical and advantageous roles for advancing your botanical business or hobby.
If you’re unsure about how compost fits into a greenhouse scheme, read on, and you’ll find just how important – and easy – it is to make these two equally beautiful aspects of growing meet perfectly in the middle.
WHAT IS COMPOST?
The secret (though actually not-so-secret) key to understanding this natural amendment’s great reputation is by also understanding what actually goes into it. You could skip the limiting name “compost” and embrace the title, “organic matter.” That’s all it truly is: a delightful mixture of organic decomposing matter of all types.
At any given moment, your pile could be made of many possible materials: dead leaves, veggie scraps, kitchen waste, grass clippings, hay, and so much more. The possibilities are (almost) endless. When artfully combined with a pinch of aeration, decomposition happens speedily, breaking down all these materials into a rich, fertile, and soil-like loam.
WHY YOU SHOULD COMPOST
The benefits are too many to overturn once you really dig into them. The most major plus you get from putting together a pile: a nutrient rich, all-natural fertilizer for your plants. While this is the most obvious perk, there are plenty of others besides:
Boost your soil’s microbiome. If created right, compost piles are highly active in microbial life, which is great for your soil’s health.
Make use of your waste stream. Whether it’s from your home or business, reusing organic waste in a pile creates free plant nourishment.
Preserve long-term soil viability. Proper replacement of organic matter in the soil over time is imperative to long term soil health.
Skip dependence on chemicals. Amending your soils with this medium encourages healthy plant independence, cutting off your need for chemical fertilizers, even pesticides or herbicides.
THE BENEFITS OF COMPOST TO YOUR OPERATION
The reasons to have a compost pile are many. But they extend far beyond just the well-being of your growing setup or greenhouse itself – it’s where they actually support plant life, soil life, and thus your success and profits that they actually count the most.
Provide natural nutrients for plants. Nature’s decomposing powers turn solid waste and scraps back into basic nutrients crops need.
Restore, replenish, or boost microbial life. Compost teems with microbes, not just nutrients. Adding some puts life back into lifeless soils.
Make nutrients even more bioavailable. If microbial life is high, nutrient amounts are high, too – bacteria, fungi, and more are all pivotal at creating and unlocking more nutrition for plants.
Suppress plant diseases. The more balanced and robust soil life, the more it will keep out soil diseases on its very own (without your help).
Prevent pest pressure. Healthy, nourished plants equal plants that don’t attract pests. Compost amending guarantees plant health.
Improve drainage and soil retention. The addition of organic matter to soils also gives it great structure for holding water and preventing erosion.
Balance pH naturally. High amounts of soil life help pH balance itself completely on its own, without interference from the grower.
Ensure long-term soil fertility. Boosting both nutrients and soil life ensures that the mediums you use remain viable for as long as possible.
Heal the environment. Take comfort knowing that chemical use replaced with compost use minimizes your impact on nature.
Ramp up profits. Better soil means better plants. And as all us growers know by now, better plants means better harvests, better yields, and better income.
THE BASICS OF COMPOST MAKING
How do you start a composting setup? It’s way more than just taking your farm or kitchen waste and tossing it into a pile. There are a few basic rules to keep in mind when assembling and building your pile – and they can mean the huge difference between a giant, stinking mass that stays around for weeks, or a harmonious system that biodegrades quickly, creating the plant food you need.
THE GOLDEN RATIO
Though more accurately, you could call it the “green and brown ratio.” The key to a successful compost is to properly layer two broad categories of organic matter, namely nitrogenous (green) matter with carbonaceous (brown) matter. When correctly combined, decomposition is catalyzed, occurring quickly and naturally.
The ratio itself: always layer every amount of nitrogen to four equal parts carbon (nitrogen to carbon 1:4). Too much nitrogen attracts a lot of anerobic bacteria, and can slow down the breakdown process. Carbon introduces a different set of microbial life needed to help speed things up, while also balancing the amount of anaerobic bacteria that colonize the pile (while encouraging healthy fungal colonization, too, for more diversity).
Another important point – always layer carbon over the top of your nitrogen. As carbon decomposes, it sinks; as nitrogen rots, it rises. When you combine these two together in this way – with the addition of a few other needed elements like air and moisture – then you create the perfect recipe for a lean, mean composting machine.
What is nitrogenous or green matter in your waste stream? Basically, it’s anything that still has some “life” to it: it’s green, fresh, and just recently used. It will have some carbon in it, too – but the fresher and greener, the more nitrogen it has over carbon, ultimately.
This includes materials like fresh fruit and vegetable scraps, fresh dead plants and parts (yes – including from the field), eggshells, coffee grounds, weeds, and more. Since these are protein-based, life-derived materials, they are chock-full of nitrogen to be released and consumed by microbes for decomposition. What most consider waste (like these materials) can be composted and reused by the grower.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, carbon describes materials that have had most of the life in them leave already. As they are described, they tend to be brown, but also dry or fragile. A little nitrogen may still be found within, but in much smaller amounts than carbon.
Some examples: dry leaves, wood chips, dried grasses or weeds, paper, straw, hay, and more. When laying out one’s nitrogen, covering it with a thick layer of these materials speeds up decomposition while keeping smell and mess down. Every pile needs this to keep a proper balance of microbial life, to boost biodegradation, and also encourage aerobic over anaerobic bacteria in their growing medium.
Beyond the perfect balance and layering of materials, every pile needs aeration. While you can have compost and get away with not aerating it, the result is often a pile that doesn’t biodegrade quickly at all; plus, it teems with more anaerobic life than aerobic, which increases the chance of disease (harmful to both plants and humans).
So what does aerating it entail? In some manner, ir needs to be turned or stirred to bring it into new contact with air, oxygen, and airborne, healthy aerobic microbes. There are various ways you can turn your pile: simply with a shovel for small piles, or a tractor or backhoe for very large piles in large operations.
You can also invest in “tumblers” which make aerating compost by hand an easy, pain-free process. Usually a week after you add fresh material (carbon or nitrogen), a turn or two will help speed things up routinely. Another aerobic method is compost tea brewing.
Just as important as materials and aeration, paying attention to the overall moisture of your pile is essential for a great end result. All living things need water to thrive, and this includes microbial life as well. You can bet that if you have excessively dry compost that the bacteria and fungi in there are lacking.
Inversely, compost piles can also be too wet. If your pile is on the drier side, some light watering could do it some good, and to also make sure that it receives adequate shade from the sun during the hottest times of day. If your pile is too wet, try adding more brown/carbon, which helps absorb extra water.
How do you know when your compost is at the perfect level of moisture? One way to think about it: water should escape from it much like it would drip from a sponge being squeezed. Do this sporadically to test its moisture.
Keeping tabs on temperature is also important. This may, occasionally, require you to take your compost’s temperature, especially if you notice (or suspect) that its temperature is fluctuating. As a general rule: the hotter your pile is (specifically inside at its very center) the faster decomposition is taking place, a sign that you’re well on your way.
An internal temperature between 150° and 160° F is ideal. Lower than that, and it’s likely that optimal decomposition isn’t taking place. Higher than 170° F, and it’s a sign that it needs to be aerated and turned: too-hot compost is a sign that things may be going anaerobic.
If your temperatures are nowhere near these levels, try adding highly nitrogenous materials and layering with less carbon to get decomposition going.
THE BEST MATERIALS FOR COMPOSTING
The field is ripe when it comes to the materials you can compost. Anything that decomposes is likely a great candidate for your pile, save for a few shady contenders that you should always avoid. For the most part, however, anything is fair game.
To really know right from wrong, however, it does help to have a list. A rule of thumb: plant matter of any type is excellent, while animal matter can get hairy. Before you add to or create your setup, refer to this list as a basic guide.
Fruit scraps (non-citrus, no avocado skins)
Grain scraps (non-dairy baked goods, cereals, pasta, rice)
Pickled plant foods
Fresh grass clippings
Fresh garden weeds (seedless and untreated)
Animal manure (cow, horse, pig, rabbit, chicken, bat, goat, sheep – no cat or dog)
Dried garden weeds (seedless and untreated)
Wood chips (untreated)
Grass clippings (dried and untreated)
Napkins or tissues (untreated)
Newspaper or any paper (untreated)
Coffee filter and teabags (untreated)
MATERIALS YOU SHOULDN’T COMPOST
Animal matter (meat, bones, carcasses)
Chemically treated paper products
Oils, fats, or grease
CONTAINING YOUR PILE
A good first order of business before starting your pile at all is deciding where it will go. Placement is important, but so is the nature of the actual container that will be holding your pile. Both container and location should meet a few important standards that will help with the breakdown process.
Firstly: its location should receive equal parts sunlight and shade during the day, which helps maintain moisture and temperature. It should also be breathable in the container it is placed – if enclosed, there should be holes for air contact. There are many different choices for container setups: chicken wire containers, wooden pallet enclosures, or even commercial ones that can all meet your purposes.
Once you have your finished compost, the growing world is your oyster in terms of where and what you can use it for. A very important reminder: always make sure that you are using completely finished, broken-down compost, where all matter has completely biodegraded into soil form. Fresh is very highly nitrogenous and anaerobic (called “hot” compost), and if applied to your plants can actually harm or kill them (called “burning”).
With safely finished material in hand, however, you can implement this amendment into many aspects of your growing setup. Mix it in small amounts into your soil mixes for a nutritive boost – or till large amounts of it directly into larger raised soil beds in the earth. When your plants need a little extra, you can also side-dress your crops for more nourishment, whether they are in containers or growing straight in the ground.
USING COMPOST IN A GREENHOUSE
Is there anything exceedingly different about bringing a composting setup into your greenhouse operation? Not really, when you get down to it. Though if you look at it from a certain perspective, there are ways that it is a very exciting element, because it improves your greenhouse functions in many ways.
You can grow in many different mediums in a greenhouse, and many of these mediums eagerly welcome the use of compost to benefit your crops. But it doesn’t just improve fertility and growth in your plants – it also serves as a way to make your operation more efficient in some surprising ways.
Reduce waste in your greenhouse operation. If your production has a waste stream – veggie scraps, harvested plant bits, spent seedlings – all these can be composted to make new, fertile food for future crops.
Keep things clean and organized. Building your own pile motivates you to clean up both your plants – and your space – of extra scraps that would clutter it up otherwise.
More freedom with greenhouse location. Adding fertility to soils with your own compost can allow you to work with any type of soil you like, no matter where you place your greenhouse.
Extend the long-term life of everything in your structure. Whether you’re planting in containers, direct into the soil, or even using compost teas with hydroponics, having your very own compost setup can give you more control and microbial support to every medium aspect of your operation.
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