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Here's the "scoop" on a feel-good, do-good occupation in the yard.


Published: 09/17/2012

by Richard Rix

 Everyone should compost, which is why municipalities subsidize compost boxes for all gardeners, though if you get truly serious about it, you might wish to make your own.
Compost adds both slow-release nutrients and texture to garden soil. It is a superior weed-inhibiting mulch, and if you can generate enough of it you may never need to use harsh chemical fertilizers again. Plus, it's fun to work with, forming a crumbly black mass that old-timers like to refer to as black gold.
To make a compost pile, you don't really need a box. Any piled-up heap of decaying vegetative matter qualifies as a compost pile. A box, however, will tend to make it neater and promote better control through heat retention, correct watering and pest deterrence.
For small gardens, a single compost box may be quite adequate, especially if it's the type with a little door at the bottom for access to the finished product. Larger gardens will need more boxes three or four at least. Two never seem to do. You are always looking for empty space while existing stuff decomposes.
You might consider making a triple compost box yourself and having a separate single box close to the back door. That way, the triple box can handle the yard waste, and the single box can take your kitchen waste. Just be careful what you put into it, for cooked scraps will attract vermin. It is far better to stick to raw fruit and vegetable waste, though avoiding the likes of orange and grapefruit peel, which take a long time to decompose in our climate. Egg shells and shrimp shells are good additions for their mineral content.
Going back to the triple box, a good size is a little less than three metres long by one meter deep by one metre high. But let's talk Imperial measurements in this crazy country of ours, for that's how lumberyards still sell their wares.
Using 1 by 6-inch cedar planks for the back and the sides with 2 by 4's for the frame, you can build a highly serviceable triple box. Make it about 9 feet 6 inches long and 3 feet wide, then after you have finished putting in the dividers, you'll wind up with three nice cubes, each holding about one cubic yard.
On no account use pressure-treated wood in constructing the box, for it contains strong chemicals that will leach into the compost pile. Since the process of decomposition depends on the activity of micro-organisms and worms, why poison them? Nor do you want to be spreading such stuff on your plants, especially edible ones. Yes, untreated woods will rot quicker, but cedar is naturally rot resistant. For the 2 by 4's, spruce is a reasonable alternative, since it holds nails better than cedar does and will not rot as fast as other cheap woods.
When building the box, do not butt the boards that go at the sides, back and lid. Rather, leave a couple of inches of space between them for air circulation. The boards for the door should butt though. You may find it necessary to secure the front corners, or else the sides will tend to splay out. A cheap, effective way to do it is by hammering a six-foot length of rebar halfway into the ground at the corners and clamping the top half to the wood.
Compost boxes work best when they receive about a half-day of direct sunlight, to make sure they warm up nicely without overheating. They should not be allowed to dry out, which means that you will need to water them occasionally using the hose. Do not saturate the pile, for it will retard decomposition and promote matting.
To help the compost pile, try to fork it over three or four times a year, to introduce air. If you imagine your compost pile as a smouldering fire that needs to be prodded occasionally and that works best with a flow of air from the bottom, you wont go far wrong. You'll know when the compost is ready for use when it is no longer warm to the touch, but donÕt let it stand too long, for it will degrade. Finished compost should be black, or very dark brown, and you should still be able to recognize bits of the original constituents among it.
Should you add soil to the compost? Probably not, though sprinkling in the occasional inch of soil or even finished compost or peat moss won't do any harm. The pile will get soil aplenty if you throw in the end-of-season annuals without shaking the soil from their roots soil that has been depleted anyway.
Do not put animal feces in the compost. It can be done someplace like Florida, along with high-nitrogen matter to help break it down, but our climate is not hot enough to reliably destroy all pathogens. You may also wish to avoid oak leaves and pine needles, since they take a long time to break down. Just about everything else from the yard is fair game, except of course diseased plants, such as those with rot and mildew. They may well break down to a state of harmlessness, but why take the chance of spreading horticultural disease?
There is now some talk that the outside parts of compost piles may be a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Given the current West Nile virus situation, therefore, it might make sense to at least fork over the top few inches of the pile every few days.
Residents of Toronto may obtain a single compost box for $15 from the city. Call 416-392-4689 for details. Residents of other municipalities should contact the coordinator of their local waste and recycling unit.

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