Expert Advice from Chris Faria, Gardener and Owner of Agra Living
As we prepare for summer, prep the garden and start our vegetable seedlings, it is also a great time of the year to refresh ourselves about how to build, maintain and grow healthy compost. After all compost has so many benefits for our vegetable garden:
- Increases the number of beneficial microorganisms, who are really responsible for feeding our plants
- Increases organic matter, healing your soil
- Increases your soil ability to retain water and nutrients
- Buffers soil pH, vital in Bermuda’s alkaline soil
- Recycles kitchen scrapes, which left in the trash release methane a powerful greenhouse gas
- Saves you lots of money not paying for all your horticultural waste being trucked away
We recommend, and will describe below, building a compost pile using the open pile technique (pictured on page 7), Of course if you already have a compost bin use it, they are great for small gardens and create a bit of a deterrent for rodents.
The first thing to consider is where to build your compost pile. It is recommended to do this under a tree that drops its leaves in the winter. Think of a Poinciana tree that during the summer makes wonderful shade and, in the winter, drops its leaves so that the pile is exposed to the sun keeping it warm. Alternatively, try building your compost pile directly on the garden beds so that any nutrients that leach out can be retained in the soil underneath. Once you’ve chosen a spot you then need to mark out a 3’x3’ area. Remove the weeds and loosen the area with a digging fork this will encourage air flow through the pile.
Adding stakes on each corner really helps to keep the cubic shape that we are trying to achieve. With your newly cleared spot you want to make the first layer six inches thick using thick branches (more than ½” thick) or palm frond stalks, again aiding the air flow.
Now you are ready to build your dream compost lasagna!
There are three ingredients in our lasagna, and they are added in this order:
- 3 five-gallon buckets of dry material: hedge trimmings that are less than ½” in diameter, palm fronds, wood chips and fibrous stalks from plants such as corn.
- 3 five-gallon buckets of green material: kitchen scraps, grass clippings, tree leaves, dead plants from the garden and weeds (do not use weeds that have gone to seed or noxious weeds such as Nut Sedge and Purslane).
- ¼ of a five-gallon bucket of garden soil which has the microorganisms needed for the magic to happen!
Add water at each layer. Repeat these layers as you have the materials available. Once your pile is built to 3 feet high it’s finished. Well done!
Continue to water the pile keeping it moist but not saturated. This means that you will need to water it regularly in the summer and in winter you will need to keep the pile covered. If the pile is in the sun during the summer months, you may need to cover it with shade cloth to keep it moist.
After about a month and half you will notice that the pile is now about half the size it started at. Now you can make the decision to turn it over or leave it to continue to decompose. If you turn the pile you will have finished compost quicker while not turning means you have to wait longer but you will end up with more compost at the end. The decision is up to you and whether you have the patience!
If you decide to turn the pile, the whole process takes about 3 months. You can tell when the pile is finished when you notice that most of the larger pieces have decomposed and that it has a woodsy smell. Sift the compost through ½ inch wire mesh and then it’s ready to store or use in your garden!
Composting allows us to share in nature’s recycling process. There are countless beneficial microorganisms we want to promote in our compost, but fungi are the real superheroes here. Fungi are just like humans as they use carbon and nitrogen very similarly to how we use carbohydrates and proteins for our energy sources. They breathe oxygen and need water to thrive just like us so that’s why the airflow and keeping the pile moist are so important.
There’s no better feeling than when you have healthy homegrown compost to apply to your garden made from refuse that came from
the same area, healing your soil and closing the fertility loop. Good luck with your compost making and look forward to hearing all about your success!
Chris Faria is a certified GROW BIOINTENSIVE™ Sustainable Farming teacher and founder of The AgraLiving Institute.
To sign up for one of their Sustainable Farming workshops, www.agraliving.org/all-workshops