Create a supply of ‘black gold’ — even in winter
As I have touched on already this winter, gardeners easily grow restless this time of year. Forcing bulbs inside helps but unfortunately there are few substitutes for working earth between one’s hands. There is, however, one easy project that is a fabulous way to start the summer garden in the quiet lull of winter: composting.
The beauty of composting is that it can be effectively done any time of the year. A general misconception is that composting must occur when temperatures are above freezing. While it does require a touch more effort, the composting process can definitely be started even in weather under freezing. Backtracking a bit, for those unaware exactly what composting is: decayed organic matter used as a plant fertilizer.
Most gardeners would agree that the addition of organic matter (compost) to their gardens is one of the most vital elements to the success of their gardens. Soil amended with compost is less susceptible to disease, requires less fertilizer and holds water better. The advantages of winter composting far outweigh the cons. Winter is the perfect time for someone who has never composted before because in the cool temperatures mistakes can be more easily fixed and risk of contaminating the pile is much lower. Without a doubt, the most appealing aspect of winter composting is having your very own supply of “black gold” (as several other Master Gardeners call itÂ an enthusiastic bunch, we are) by the time planting begins around May 15. The keys to successful composting are simple: air, water and ratio of nitrogen (N) to carbon ©.
First and most importantly, the size of your compost pile is an important component to beginning the process below freezing. According to OSU FactSheet HYG 1189–99: “A large compost pile insulates itself and holds the heat of microbial activity. Its center will be warmer than its edges. Piles smaller than three feet cubed (27 cu. ft.; 3–4 ft tall) have trouble holding this heat in the winter, while piles larger than five feet cubed (125 cu. ft.; 5–6 ft tall) do not allow enough air to reach the microbes at the center.”
A strong and inconspicuous container that is a perfectly-suited vessel in which to compost is a large trash bin. It will also provide additional insulation and protection from excess water. However protection from water also means protection from air Âwhich is not a good thing. The easiest way to combat this is to drill several small holes into the sides of the container so that air may come in but excess water may not. Because a compost pile is essentially a small-scale landfill, covering it in a container is a friendly gesture to neighbors not necessarily interested in your science project; as well as keeping out curious animals.
A brief overview on what is desirable compost material and what is not, again from OSU FactSheet HYG 1189–99: “kitchen scraps such as fruit and vegetable peelings, egg shells, and coffee grounds that would otherwise be thrown in the garbage. Care must be taken when composting kitchen scraps. Do not compost meat, bones, and fatty foods such as cheese, salad dressing, and cooking oil. These foods ferment or putrify, cause odors, and can attract rodents and other nocturnal animals that can be pests.” Some compost yard clippings, but this is a point of contention considering lawns are treated with pesticides and fertilizers. Luckily at this time of year, there are no yard clippings so that is a debate we need not wage.
Reading this, one might think “how am I going to fill a 3 to 4 foot tall pile with my own kitchen waste?” Luckily in the composting process, much more carbon is required than nitrogen. One of the easiest to gather and most abundant sources of viable carbon to compost are dry, brown leaves. The ideal ratio for kitchen scraps like vegetable and fruit trimmings is 15 parts carbon (brown leaves) to one part nitrogen (kitchen scraps). Sources of carbon can also be found in your house: newspaper and coffee grounds are perfectly acceptable.
One of the easiest elements to control in your compost pile is water; especially if your compost bin has a lid. Compost piles should be about as wet as a wrung-out sponge. Too much water will inhibit the process and cause odor. In winter composting, the lid stops the accumulation of snowfall which in turn waterlogs the pile. Turning the pile periodically will help keep the moisture evenly distributed and incorporate air.
“A properly made heap will reach temperatures of about 140 degrees F in four to five days. At this time, you will notice the pile “settling.” This is a good sign that your heap is working properly. After three to four weeks, fork the materials into a new pile, turning the outside of the old heap into the center of the new pile. Add water if necessary. It is best to turn your compost a second or third time. The compost should be ready to use within three to four months” OSU FactSheet HYG 1189–99
While unfortunately I cannot offer any solution for growing tomatoes in the snow, one easy and very green way to put anxious gardeners to work is start a compost pile this early in the year. Composting is one of the most beneficial projects for the garden and happens to also be one of the easiest. Instead of spending this time cooped up inside, collect kitchen scraps, brave the weather and set up your compost now. Your summer garden will reward your effort in spades.
Community garden program
Join the Delaware County Master Gardeners and OSU Extension for a program from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 4, at the Columbus State College, Delaware Campus. Our keynote speaker will be Bill Dawson, Growing to Green Coordinator at Franklin Park Conservatory. He will speak about the Fundamentals of Community Gardening. Other topics for the day will be Soils and Compost, Companion planting, Succession planting and an expert panel group. Call the Extension office at 740–833-2030 to reserve. The price is $15 which includes lunch, coffee and water.
Stephen Jones is an OSU Extension Master Gardener volunteer.