Gardening Report: University of Fairbanks Professor explains the basics of composting

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Published: Jul. 23, 2021 at 3:35 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - Composting is a crucial part of any successful garden, as well as a good contribution to a healthier environment.

According to Heidi Rader, Associate Professor of Extension for the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), you don’t even need to have a garden to start composting. “Composting is a great thing to do if you have a garden, and even if you don’t have a garden. When you grow a garden, you’re going to have a lot of things that you don’t eat like carrot tops, flower stalks, broccoli stalks, all those pea vines... and also if you have a lawn, you’re probably going to have access to a lot of leaves, and some people just bring that to the dump. That’s just not very good for the environment. It’s just going to get mixed in with a bunch of things that aren’t going to decompose, so it’s wasteful. When you add it back into a compost pile and then add it to your garden, it’s kind of a way to recycle at home and keep a lot of waste out of the waste stream. I think the estimate is about 30% of household waste is actually compostable.”

Rader said the benefits compost brings to a garden are numerous. “Compost is so good for your garden on these really hot days especially. It adds organic matter to your garden, and what that organic matter does is it holds on to water and nutrients and then releases them to your plants gradually. So if you don’t have much organic matter in your garden, you’re going to have to water more, you’re going to have to fertilize more, and there’s even a little bit of nutrients in compost as well.”

According to Rader, there are many different ways to start a compost pile at home. “So getting started with a compost pile, if you don’t have a fenced in area for your garden, you can get some kind of bin. You can buy expensive bins but I actually use old baby gates, and I’ve made just very simple bins out of those. So that helps keep out some of the pests like dogs, and it just sort of collects your material. Then you’re going to need something to compost. So if you don’t have a garden, you might just compost food waste and leaves, or find some type of carbon source. If you have a garden, you’re going to have all of the things from your garden that you don’t eat: flower stalks, broccoli stalks, lettuce that bolts, those kinds of things. If you’re really serious about composting, you can go around town [and] find things like coffee grounds from the coffee shop.”

Having plenty material on hand, Rader says, can help ensure a better product. “If you can manage to get a cubic yard of material at a time, that’s going to help it heat up - and what you want to do is heat up your compost pile so that it kills any weed seeds or anything like that. Ideally, you do not want to put weeds that have gone to seed in your compost pile. But if you heat it up, it’s going to help break that down and also create a better product.”

More information on composting, including instructions and recipes, can be found at the UAF Cooperative Extension Services website.

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