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Illinois Country Living

Cold can’t freeze out the compost cycle
Enthusiastic gardeners tend to compost piles year-round

By Kaleigh Friend

Spent flowers from the summer and fall seasons make great composting waste.

Leftover vegetables, like these tomatoes, are good for the composting bin.

When winter temperatures fall, composting materials continue to decompose beneath the surface where it’s warmer.

Have you turned your compost pile lately? If you haven’t, don’t count on Frosty the Snowman to help. Even though the temperatures have dropped and the decomposing process of your compost pile has slowed, you can still maintain your composting activities throughout the year. This low-maintenance activity will reduce the amount of waste entering landfills and will provide you with an excellent way to enhance the soil for your garden.

Compost, sometimes referred to as “the other black gold,” is a stable form of organic matter. Compost is created by the biological process in which organic components decompose under oxygen-supplied conditions, according to Jennifer Fishburn, a Horticulture Educator with the University of Illinois Extension. Compost can be used to improve soil structure in both houseplants and gardens by increasing water retention in soil and by keeping minerals available for plant use.

Some of you may be bundling up and braving the cold temperatures to turn your compost, but others may choose not to begin until spring. When warm weather returns again, there are a few things you’ll need to get started. First, you’ll need an aerated bin, homemade or store-bought, at least 3 feet in length, width and height, but no larger than
5 feet in length, width and height. Next you will start adding layers of green and brown matter, which provide nitrogen and carbon to the composting process.

Green matter consists of things such as yard clippings and non-dairy food wastes, while brown matter consists of things such as dried leaves, sawdust and twigs. Once you’ve added the materials and some time has passed, you may notice steam coming from the pile. This means the decomposing has begun, because the steam is due to the metabolic energy produced by the billions of microbes in the organic matter and soil. A pile’s center can warm up to 140-150 F.

However, there are a few things you should leave out of your compost pile. Dairy products, meat and food wastes cooked in oil can attract pests and may lead to an unpleasant scent. If your compost pile does begin to have an objectionable odor, don’t worry! Adding more brown matter and turning the pile are both easy ways to solve this problem. It’s a good idea to build your pile down wind from your neighbors and away from your home or other structures, if you are worried you will have problems with odor.

Composting is a low-maintenance activity, but the more you turn your pile, the faster your compost will be ready. Duane Friend, Natural Resource Educator for the University of Illinois Extension, said if you don’t rotate your compost pile, you can expect the process to take one to two years, but if you are more enthusiastic with your turning, your compost can be ready in as soon as three to six months. “Composting is doing what nature intended,” Friend said. “It allows nutrients to go back into the soil to be used by plants.”

You may be wondering, “But what about people who don’t have a yard?” Michelle Bird-Vogel, Agriculture and Natural Resources Program Coordinator for the University of Illinois Extension, said the yardless might be interested in a different kind of composting called vermicomposting. In this process, various species of worms, including earthworms, do the work. This process can be done indoors or outdoors in a small bin using newspapers and food waste. The volume created by this process is much smaller than the backyard type of composting, but is perfect for in-town and apartment dwellers that want to use compost for houseplants or other small planting projects.

The extension offices offer several programs to assist people with an interest in composting. First, there is the Master Gardener program. To become a Master Gardener, you must submit an application to your local extension unit. After the application has been reviewed, you will begin training by attending a course for 11 weeks, for about one hour each week. Before becoming a certified Master Gardener, there is also an internship period, and once certified, must remain an active volunteer.

There is also a Master Composter program, which is more regional. If a group is interested, contact your local extension office and ask for a training program that teaches a more in-depth education on composting, involving some hands-on activities. By contacting your local extension office, you can speak to a staff member with knowledge on the topic that can answer any questions you may have.

The Green Center at Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield will be hosting a composting symposium on Feb. 14, 2011 in coordination with other partners including the Illinois Stewardship Alliance. The event will take place from 12:30 p.m.-6:30 p.m. and will include information on how and why to get involved with composting. For more information call the Green Center at 217-786-2434.

Composting is an excellent way to recycle, will provide exceptional planting soil for spring gardening projects and can save you money on mulch. All you have to do is get it started - leave the work to Mother Nature!


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