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Understanding composting ask a farmer

  • AL ZAGOFSKY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS Kevin Ruch, owner of the 14-Acre Farm, an organic farm in Summit Hill holds a sample from his compost pile.
    AL ZAGOFSKY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS Kevin Ruch, owner of the 14-Acre Farm, an organic farm in Summit Hill holds a sample from his compost pile.
Published June 15. 2013 09:02AM

Now that it's spring, many people turn toward gardening. But why garden?

Some like fresh veggies ripe for the picking. Others like varieties not commercially available. Others want personal assurance that their crops are organic and one of the secrets of organic farming is compost.

Most people have a vague idea that if they pile garden and vegetable food wastes, and turn it periodically, in a few months, voilà, it will be reduced in volume to a deep brown humus.

For some, compost making is a no-brainer just let stuff rot. For others, it seems to be a miracle of science much too technical and difficult.

So, for down to earth answers to our compost question, we asked farmer Kevin Ruch, owner of the 14-Acre Farm, an organic farm in Summit Hill.

Times News: Is composting a good idea?

Ruch: You have to use your waste materials and put them back into the ground if you are growing organic. It's really the only way to do it.

TN: How much material does it take to get a cubic foot of compost?

Ruch: It's really based on the poundage. One hundred pounds of food waste will give you about one hundred pounds of dirt.

TN: How do you get started in composting?

Ruch: You can either just pile the stuff up and layer it and let it set for a year until it is ready to use, or if you want be serious about it, you should use the three-pile method. You pile it up once, add starter, then you turn it over into another pile, and you add another starter into it. Compost starters introduce microorganisms and bacteria that will start to break it down.

TN: Do you use compost?

Ruch: The farm uses large quantities of compost. I can't make enough, so I buy composted mushroom soil. Mushroom soil is generally horse or cow manure and straw for the most part, that has been inoculated with the mycelium that grows the mushrooms, and then once it is spent, is composted.

TN: Should the average person add manure to their compost?

Ruch: In a perfect world, people should use manure. If they had enough land, they should have two or three animals that are making enough to support the soil life of the farm. I don't have any animals, but in a perfect world we all should. I think it's a good idea to have manure. You don't want to add it every year. I think adding 10 to 20 percent horse or cow manure to the compost would be a great idea.

TN: What type of manure should be used in compost?

Ruch: With chicken manure you want to go a lot lighter on. Rabbit manure you want to go really light on also because it is really high in nitrogen and can burn plants. Horse and cow manure you can go heavier on. They are higher in phosphorus and they also have nitrogen in them.

TN: How should garden and vegetable wastes be prepared for composting?

Ruch: It's like chewing. Thick things like branches and corncobs take a long time. It's best to shred them as fine as possible so they will break down a lot faster. You can use a chipper/shredder or food processor. You really can't get it too fine. If you turn it often enough it will break down.

TN: Are there things you should never throw into a compost pile?

Ruch: Citrus fruits are not going to compost because they are too acidic. You shouldn't put meats or bread in the compost. These will attract animals, especially bears.

TN: Does a proper compost pile attract animals?

Ruch: I have a high fence. My pile usually attracts just small animals in the wintertime.

Here's some additional thoughts. Composting is basically if you build it, they will come. If you bring soil, leaves, food scraps, air, and water together, the microorganisms present in the environment will be encouraged to grow and begin the process of decay. Good soil is rich in microorganisms a single teaspoon of soil contains 100 million bacteria and 800 feet of fungal threads.

A healthy compost pile likes to have a balance of one-quarter nitrogen-rich materials such as vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, grass clippings or manure to three-quarters carbon rich materials such as leaves, straw, paper or sawdust.

Once the wastes are placed into the bin, the materials begin to heat and, depending on the pile and the outside temperature, can compost in the temperature range from 55 to 140°F. The higher temperatures cause the most rapid composting while killing pathogenic organisms and weed seeds.

During the composting cycle, the pile needs to be turned approximately weekly. It also should be checked for the amount of moisture. The correct amount of moisture is that of a squeezed-out sponge. Add water if to dry, add dry leaves if it is too damp.

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