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Composting 101 | Growing in the Garden

Growing in the Garden blog posts originally aired in 2019 as a radio show produced by the Food Sovereignty Initiative for KOYA 88.1 FM, the community radio station owned and operated by the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. They have been transcribed and adapted to be shared here as a community resource.

Hello, Rosebud! Thanks for continuing to tune in to Growing in the Garden.

As we prep for spring planting and all things gardening and growing, we thought we’d talk a bit about compost. It’s a great thing to do, both for your soil and the environment. We compost organic materials and use compost in our garden, and would like to encourage you to give it a try at home. While you can get very technical about composting, composting at home doesn't require any sort of fancy equipment - all you need is a little bit of knowledge, outdoor space, and some commitment.

But first, why is composting so important?

Organic materials (the kind you add to your compost pile) need oxygen in order to break down safely. Organic material means that the item contains carbon. All materials that come from living things contain carbon.

If you throw away your kitchen scraps or weeds, they'll go straight to landfill, which is an anaerobic (oxygen free) environment. When organic materials are left to decompose without oxygen, they release methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas that warms the atmosphere, just like carbon dioxide (CO2). But methane is better able to trap heat than carbon dioxide, making it much more dangerous in regards to global warming. Over 20 years, methane is more than eighty times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Over 100 years, it's twenty-eight times more powerful than CO2 in regards to warming the planet.

Essentially, composting is the process of organic waste breaking down aerobically (with oxygen) to make a rich and healthy soil. There are five key components: browns, greens, air, water, and heat.

One of the compost piles at the Keya Wakpala Garden, right before getting turned.

The “browns” are carbon sources. These are usually dry materials such as dead leaves, straw, coffee filters, wood chips or wood shavings, sawdust, and egg shells. The “greens” are sources of nitrogen. These are usually wet and fresh materials like fruit and vegetable scraps leftover from cooking or eating, used coffee grounds, or fresh grass clippings. Keeping a balance of the brown and green materials will help create a healthier soil.

The compost pile needs both water and air. Water is crucial for breaking down materials, so the pile needs to be watered regularly. It should be as wet as a wrung-out sponge. Keeping your compost exposed to air will allow oxygen to help break down the organic waste by oxidizing it (this is aerobic composting, which requires oxygen), so make sure to keep it in a space with good air flow. You can build a compost bin out of pallets, which work great to keep your compost contained in one area while still letting air pass through the pile.

The final ingredient is heat. Heat will hasten the breakdown of all the organic materials and will also help kill any harmful bacteria. One way to increase the heat of your compost pile is to put a dark tarp over it, which traps heat in the pile but also allows for air flow. Every once in a while (about every two weeks), mix or turn the compost to move the materials in your pile around. The middle of the pile will heat up the most, so you want to rotate the materials so that they'll break down evenly over time.

Here's the process we follow at the Keya Wakpala Garden for layering and turning our compost:

1) Layer an approximately four inch thick layer of weeds or straw on the bottom.

2) Add a one inch layer of chicken manure (optional, if you have it, or you can layer older compost that's already mostly broken down into soil).

3) Layer 3 inches of weeds.

4) Repeat until you've completely turned your compost pile!

Don't forget to water each layer as you build them. Try to make the pile as tall as possible and don't spread the organic materials too thin, or it won't get hot enough in the middle to break them down. When you turn your compost, the top layer will become the middle, the middle layer will become the bottom, and the bottom layer will get put on top.

If you would rather not turn or water your compost, it'll still break down into soil! You'll just have to wait a bit longer. And even if you don't want to use the soil produced by your compost for planting, composting is still a great and easy way to reduce the amount of trash your household creates!

A freshly turned compost pile.

You’ll know your compost is ready to use when it smells like soil and the individual materials are no longer identifiable. At this point, you can mix the compost with other dirt and soil to create a healthy and rich environment for your plants. Using compost is a great way to build up the soil for no-till planting - check out our blog post all about why and how to use no-till methods here!

If you're planning to use your compost to enrich your soil for planting, you may find it helpful to have two or more compost piles. That way, you can continue adding organic materials like kitchen scraps and weeds to one pile, while the other one finishes breaking down. Once a pile is big enough, you'll want to stop adding to it so that all the materials have a chance to break down into soil.

An important note: there are things you should absolutely NOT put into your compost! Items like meat, fish, dairy, grease, oil, bones, dog or cat manure, or weeds that have already gone to seed should NEVER go into your compost.

You can also compost using a compost tumbler. The tumbler is elevated off the ground so that it can spin the compost to turn it. Some compost tumblers even have two sections so that you can keep adding organic waste materials to one side while the other side breaks down into soil.

Composting is great because it allows you to enrich your own soil! It also reduces the amount of trash your household creates and contributes less to landfills. Composting is a simple, easy way to recycle organic materials that would otherwise go to waste and return their nutrients back into the earth in a healthy and productive way.

If you have any questions about composting, gardening, growing and all things related, please feel free to message our Facebook page at the Sicangu Community Development Corporation.

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