By Renate Tilson

Many years ago, an experienced gardener friend advised me, “Feed your soil, and the soil will feed your plants.” The single best way to do this is by adding compost to your soil. Thanks to simple decomposition, nature “recycles” plant waste into a rich soil additive. Whether gardeners have fancy composting containers or just a pile on the ground, they can reuse this year’s trimmings as an excellent soil additive for next year’s vegetables and flowers. Compost improves the health, nutritive value, and the texture of your soil. This is in contrast to chemical additives, which give plants a temporary boost in growth, but can actually be detrimental in the long run.

Building your pile

Composting is part of the natural cycle of returning plant and animal waste to the ground. The best food source for composters is a mixture of energy-laden grass clippings, fruit and vegetable scraps, eggshells, coffee grounds, and garden trimmings. You’ll want to also add wood chips, plant cuttings, or twigs for bulk. Simply drop the debris into the bin or on the pile and water as necessary to keep things moist. Micro-organisms, insects, and earthworms—which will simply appear—will work at slowly breaking down the waste.

Mixing alternate layers of “brown” and “green” material helps break things down quicker. Brown material includes leaves, weeds, and dead plants—all rich in carbons—while green things, such as kitchen scraps or lawn clippings, are high in nitrogen. Be aware of where your raw materials come from and avoid adding herbicides, pesticides, and other nasty chemical substances to your pile. An organic compost is the best.

Place your compost bin in a convenient place. Sun or shade levels are not critical.

Garden incorporation

Add new compost generously to sandy soil to help hold water or add to lighten the heavy clay soil we have so much of here in the Willamette Valley. Make it your mulch of choice to hold moisture around plants and to keep weeds down. Amazingly, ripe compost holds four times its weight in water and reduces soil compaction. That means, when added to our dense clay soil, it helps break down tightly bound particles, allowing water and air to penetrate. This boosts nutrient storage ability and trace minerals that the plants just love. In winter, you can apply mulch or compost around your plants to protect them from freezing.

Quality compost contains millions of bacteria, fungi, red worms, and centipedes, all of which help balance and control pests and diseases. Research shows that compost has a healing, antibiotic effect on plants, and a cleansing action on soils.

Further insight

I like to visit the City of Eugene’s Composting Education Center, along the Willamette River footpath. There, you can attend talks by master composters and take advantage of the self-guided walk-through exhibit, which shows various types of composting bins and their finished products. You can also observe composting in progress in the garden at the Master Gardener House at Jefferson and 10th Street.

The art of composting is more than just a method for disposing of yard debris and getting free fertilizer; it is the satisfaction of working with the earth and taking part in the cycles of nature. The art of composting is really a conscious decision to give part of what we take back to the earth.