Compost is not a dirty word. There are many false ideas about composting, and basically, if you understand the basic principles of composting, it can be a rich source of nutrients for your trees and plants, as well as other benefits.
Compost smells, attracts animals and bugs, and basically its dirty... Isn't that the general downside of compost? If your compost pile does smell or have other problems, then you're not doing it right! Correctly done composting has little if any smell, generally does not attract bugs or animals, and it is easy to make. The result can be free or cheap fertilizer, healthier plants and soil, and keeps organic material out of the public landfill.
There are tricks and techniques for making compost, and many garden magazines profess the newest invention for making it. Not that any of this is wrong, but first understand what compost is and how to do it. Then if there are gadgets or processes you can use to improve the process, that's fine.
Compost is organic material that is in the process of decomposition. It can be used in any part of the "seasoning" process, but you decide the end result you want. Simply put, if you take leaves, lawn clippings, fruit and vegetable scraps, put it on the ground, and wait... it will decompose or break down. That's life... It's the soil bacteria that recycles it, starting with the simplest easy organic compounds, then breaking down the more complex ones. The beneficial bacteria are safe and natural, and vital to everything on the planet. If they have food to eat, their populations will increase, the breakdown process will accelerate, and when the food runs out, the leaves seemingly disappear into the soil. That is simply what compost is, the process of natural decomposition.
Now for the benefit of the gardener, making piles of compost can be used to incorporate into the soil. Compost is very rich in nutrients and minerals, free fertilizer essentially. But also, the glues and starches of the organic materials helps to improve the soil structure and the processes of water absorption and holding, air cycling in and out of the soil (roots breathe oxygen), and makes the soil crumbly and dark. Once seasoned, you can mix it in when you plant, or scatter it around on top. Either way, it is a good thing to do, and your plants will respond with bigger and better growth.
Making compost is easy. It's organic material... leaves, lawn clippings, plant scraps, are best, and rather than putting your fall leaf cleanup in the trash cans to sit in the public garbage dump, keep it and reap the benefits. Rake up the piles, and have an area (a pit, a bin, or walled structure) to hold it. It will sit for several weeks to several months before its done.
Once the material is collected, then "cook" it. The soil bacteria that breaks down the organic material needs water and air just like plant roots. You also need a source of bacteria to start the process. Use a layering process, put some leaves down, add a couple shovels full of dirt, some water, then another layer of leaves. Repeat the layering several feet tall. If the weather is dry and windy, you might cover the pile with a sheet of plastic until the weather improves. This also allows the water you added to remain, helping to start the process.
Slowly the bacteria start to feed, their population builds, and sometimes in the early cool mornings, you can see steam rising from the pile. It is the energy of break-down that it being released, and the pile can get very hot. This is where we get the term "cooking" from, perfectly fine and safe. In fact, the pile can get very hot, and in doing so, helps to kill off some weed seeds and other organisms... a sterilizing process.
As this process is working, you need to turn the pile upside down. The fastest and most cooking is on the bottom where there has been plenty of food, air, and water, but as the food supply on the bottom runs out, the decomposition stops. Flipping the pile upside down makes more food available, and brings the dissolving materials to the top to better mix and spread the bacteria. Mixing incorporates the air and water, and keeps the process cooking more efficiently. You can leave the pile alone, but it just takes longer to get it done. Its a simple process, takes some work, but it does work. At worse, a badly made compost pile will take longer to season. A well made pile can start being used in several weeks or so. As the weather changes into fall and winter, the process will greatly slow down, so plan to start the fall leaf compost piles early. By spring, they would mostly be useable.
Sticks and larger organic materials, pine needles, walnut leaves, etc. can be used, but being more complex organic materials, it will take longer for these materials to break down. If speed is your goal, so you have a certain amount of compost for next seasons planting... then have a separate pile for the tougher materials, and let it season longer.
If you do the composting correctly, there is no smell or other undesirable problems. Composting is easy, basically, leaves, water, air, and some soil to start the process. Just watch what you put into the pile. Don't put animals products, fats, or oil into a compost pile. These will break down, but this is when dogs, bugs, smells, and other nasty things happen. For these complex materials, you might bury them in a shallow pit, and let it stay-put for a year or longer. Don't use it as compost, just consider it long-term recycles. Its good for the ground, reduces waste going to the landfill, but it has different needs and uses than leaf compost.
Mulch and Composting
A thick layer of leaves, lawn clippings, bark, straw, or other materials around your trees offers many benefits. Some people say that mulch allows bugs, disease, and small critters a safe breeding ground. Yes, this can be true, but you need to monitor this and take corrective actions, just like everything else outdoors, but the benefits of mulching far outweighs the risks.
A thick layer of mulch will aide your trees in growing faster by helping to conserve the soil moisture, helps to reduce the soil from getting too warm (thereby reducing the stress on the roots), helps in nutrient cycling, as the mulch decays it improves the soil, and mulch helps to control weeds. Mulching is easy, and typically free.
Mulching is composting, but not as intensively cultured. The mulch naturally breaks down over time, and the nutrients and organic materials filter down into the soil. Some are used by the roots, other materials become part of the "soil" mixture. This is very beneficial, not just from the additional nutrients, but the soil-structure is improved, making air and water cycling better.
If you use your made compost as a mulch layer, that works well too, but good well-seasoned compost is better for mixing into the soil. Raw materials, like leaves or straw, are better to use a mulch.
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