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Compost Q&A


What is compost?

By the dictionary definition, compost is “a mixture of decaying organic matter, such as leaves and manure, used as fertilizer.” When you gather a pile of vegetable and household material, maintain the proper degree of moisture, and turn your pile regularly, waste is eventually reduced to a wealth of compost, an earthlike substance that forms a beneficial growing environment for plant roots.

What’s the difference between compost and mulch?

Mulch is a protective covering (like sawdust, compost or paper) spread or left on the ground to reduce evaporation, maintain even soil temperature, prevent erosion, control weeds, enrich the soil, or keep fruit (such as strawberries) clean. Compost makes a handy mulch around closely spaced vegetable and flower plants because it doesn’t damage the stems. When you have an abundance of compost (as you’ll have with a Mantis composter), you can afford to be generous with it as a mulch.

Is all compost smelly?

The odor of compost should be earth-like, or like good woods soil. Any bad smell is a sign that the materials are unbalanced or that decomposition has stalled. A strong ammonia smell may indicate too much grass; add some dry, high-carbon materials. The smell of spoiled food means inappropriate meat or dairy scraps need to be removed. Make sure that all materials are mixed thoroughly to ensure good aeration.

Will compost attract insects or rodents?

Compost piles have a bad reputation for inviting dogs and other pests, housing mice, rats, and snakes, and providing a breeding den for flies, mosquitoes, and other undesirable insects. If kitchen wastes are not covered or turned under, there could be a pest problem. But because a Mantis ComposTumbler composter rests above the ground and keeps everything enclosed, you should not have a problem with pests.

Why use compost?

New research is proving what many gardeners have long known - compost helps protect plants from diseases and insect pests. Compost enhances the soil’s ability to hold water and air, both essential for plants. Over time, compost-amended soil darkens and warms up more quickly in the spring, extending your growing season. Unlike soluble chemical fertilizers, compost releases its nutrients slowly as plants need them. And by composting, you can put your kitchen and garden scraps to good use - much better than landfilling. American municipalities produce almost 200 million tons of mixed residential garbage each year; 68 percent of the landfilled material is organic (yard, food, paper and wood waste).

What’s wrong with commercial fertilizers?

Chemical fertilizers, unlike the natural fertilizer of compost, are manufactured from unrenewable natural resources such as natural gas. Approximately 2 percent of the natural gas consumed in the United States goes into the manufacture of nitrogen fertilizer. Composting is a giant step toward recycling wastes, conserving precious energy reserves, and regaining control of our food supplies. Also, chemical fertilizers supply only major nutrients in quick-release forms. Plants obtain fast growth, but long-term benefits are few. Living soil and living plants need far more than a few isolated chemical elements for sustained health. Chemical fertilizers contain high levels of nitrogen, which creates lush, watery growth that is more susceptible to attack by diseases and insects, including aphids.

What materials should I compost?

Homes and gardens across the country produce a wide variety of organic materials. Yard trimmings - leaves, grass, weeds, brush and prunings - make up the major share of compostables, although kitchen scraps and agricultural manures can also play a significant role. Leaves, grass clippings, food scraps (except meat and dairy products), weeds, woody trimmings, and shredded black & white newspaper are just some of the materials you can compost. Compost activator can also be added to speed up the decomposition process.

What materials should not be composted?

Most ashes are safe to mix into your compost heap, but coal ashes are not. They have excessive amounts of both sulfur and iron, amounts that are toxic to plants. Charcoal should be avoided too; it is primarily carbon and will resist decay even after thousands of years! Compost experts recommend not adding any colored paper, such as magazines or catalogs, to your compost pile. Keep pesticide-treated plants and pressure-treated wood scraps and sawdust, which contain copper, cyanide and arsenic, out of your compost pile. Pet droppings also can contain disease organisms and are best avoided.

How long does it take to make compost?

When you tend to a compost pile, maintain a balance of ingredients, check the moisture level, and turn it regularly, compost can be made in a matter of weeks. A compost thermometer and moisture meter can be used to monitor how your compost is “cooking.” In addition, daily aeration of the material when you turn your Mantis composter makes the organisms convert raw organic matter into compost more quickly.

What’s the fastest way to make compost?

There are five things to concentrate on when making fast-acting compost:
1. Vary the materials to make a balanced food supply for the micro-organisms. Add compost activator.
2. Mix all materials thoroughly instead of making layers.
3. Make many cuts and scratches in stems and leaves to provide entry for micro-organisms
4. Turn your composting bin frequently for aeration.
5. Maintain ample moisture.

How should I use compost?

Begin your compost-adding program by spreading at least an inch over all growing areas in the fall or before you plant in the spring, and till the compost into the top several inches of the soil. Supplement your original compost application by sidedressing the heavy-feeding crops such as squash, corn, tomatoes and even broccoli with either a half-inch layer of compost or a blended organic fertilizer each month during the growing season. You will see a visible difference in the soil - it will look darker and looser-textured. Compost-amended soil will also have higher levels of nutrients when tested at a lab.

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