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Are you Making Compost? Or Just Composting?

A. I always feel bad when a publisher sends me a new book about how to make compost. I start with high hopes, but when I get to topics like grass clippings, sawdust, newspapers, junk mail and "compostable food containers" I realize that it's just another book whose 'information' will prove useless at best and plant-deadly at worst.

(By the way, I never interview these authors. I'm not going to beat down people who think they're doing good by repeating outdated or incorrect information from other people's books, Internet articles or Extension Service Bulletins.)

Instead, let us discuss the difference between 'making compost' and 'composting'.

1. Items that {quote} 'compost'. Lots of materials that are 'recommended' for compost pile inclusion will, over time, break down and decompose. But just because materials like office paper or "compostable food containers" will break down does NOT mean that they become compost. Cardboard, junk mail, sawdust, newspapers and such have zero plant feeding potential. Yes, the pile will eventually decrease in size and may even look like dirt, but it will not magically acquire plant-feeding nutrients that its raw materials never had. It's 'fast food fill'; not compost.

2. Items that make compost. To create compost that will fertilize your plants, prevent disease and put life back into your soil, you must start with RAW ingredients. Things like carboard, shredded newspaper, junk mail and the like are no longer raw; they have been heavily processed and add nothing more than bleach and toxins to the pile. Shredded fall leaves, on the other hand, are teeming with life: carbon, beneficial microbes, and micro-nutrients that are primed to create the perfect fertilizer and disease protection for your plants.

If you do nothing more than shred up your nutrient-rich fall leaves and put them into a container or enclosure with good airflow they will eventually break down into good compost for your plants. (If you don't shred them, they will stick together, resist composting, and get moldy.)

• Important takeaway #1: The smaller the particle size of the original ingredients, the faster that material will become compost. Shredded leaves are the classic example; they are the best source of 'dry brown', carbon-rich material that should make up the bulk of your pile. And shredding them produces usable compost fast.

Sigh. And yes, you must shred your fall leaves.

• Important takeaway #2: Adding small amounts of {quote} "nitrogen-rich wet green material" to your dry brown stuff will produce compost much faster; and the compost will be of much better quality, especially in its ability to fight or prevent plant diseases. The best Nitrogen-rich companion for shredded fall leaves is/are spent coffee grounds, available in bulk at coffee shops just for the asking.

Second best is grass clippings obtained FROM AN UNTREATED LAWN in the Fall. Virtually all {quote} 'compost guides' say to include {quote} "grass clippings" but never explain that clippings from a lawn that was exposed to persistent systemic herbicides via "weed and feed" or a commercial lawn service will produce contaminated compost that can be deadly to your plants.

If you are certain that your lawn has not been chemically treated (if you have a lawn service, it has been treated, with or without your knowledge), you can use a bagging mower in the Fall to collect the perfect mix of grass clippings and leaves that land on the lawn. This combination will make such excellent compost that I beg you not to add anything else. If you have lots of leaves, make another pile with shredded leaves and coffee grounds, and a third with just shredded leaves and see who wins the race.

P.S.: Outside of leaf fall time, you should use a mulching mower without a bag to return the micronized clippings to your lawn. These pulverized clippings contain a whopping ten percent Nitrogen, which is the PERFECT food for your lawn. Remove the clippings and you starve your lawn. Plus, this is the only way to use contaminated clippings safely. Do not put them out for recycling!

• Important takeaway #3: The more you mix the ingredients in the beginning, the faster that pile will become compost--but only if you don't keep adding stuff to the pile. The ideal way to compost is using the 'batch' system: You fill a bin (home made or purchased) to the top and then leave it alone. If you keep adding new things, it'll never be finished. Resist the temptation to seize defeat from the jaws of victory when it shrinks down in size, Make a second pile instead!

Kitchen scraps: Sorry, but outside of coffee grounds and finely-ground eggshells, most kitchen waste is very low in nutrients. Yes, I know that kitchen scraps are probably why you decided to start composting, but the unfortunate truth is that it's the shredded fall leaves (or ground up cornstalks, or cattails, or other live brown matter...) that becomes compost.

If you have a critter-proof bin, it's perfectly fine to mix in SMALL AMOUNTS of kitchen waste like chopped-up broccoli stalks. But no more than around five to ten percent of the total pile. Same with coffee grounds; no more than a five-gallon bucket mixed into a large pile.

Lots of shredded brown plant material + a little kitchen waste makes for a perfect pile!

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