Last updated: May 30. 2014 9:16AM - 376 Views
Brian Maddy County extension agent

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If you were passing through the Piedmont of Georgia 100 years ago on a train and someone asked what your general impressions of the landscape were, you might say the prevalence of Georgia red clay.

Hill top to hill top, road beds, farm yards, front yards were all the color of Georgia red clay. The streams were all muddied after a rain in the same color. The same red tint would be in your mind’s eye.

Our poet laureate, Sidney Lanier, wrote poems with descriptions of the red clay hills. Our farming practices of the time were to plant from fence row to fence row cotton and corn, the two biggest money crops for Georgia farmers. Unfortunately, plowing up all the land exposed the topsoil to punishing rains which washed it downstream and silted up the rivers and lakes in the Piedmont.

Now if you look out your windshield of your car as you drive across Georgia the most prevalent color is now green. My father once complained that all you see along the roads are trees.

We’ve made a lot of improvement from 100 years ago. The farmers and highway departments have embraced soil conservation and changed the landscape of Georgia.

One problem still remains: most of the 25 inches of original topsoil is still gone. So what should we do? Under prairie conditions, Mother Nature takes 1,000 years to build one inch of topsoil and under forest conditions, 10,000 years. We can’t wait that long. We can speed up soil making by using a method called composting.

Compost is what’s left of organic matter – dead leaves, stems and roots – after microbes have thoroughly decomposed it. The presence of organic matter is what makes topsoil, topsoil. Organic matter also is what makes the soil dark in color.

What is good stuff to compost? Leaves, grass clippings, twigs, chopped brush, straw, old sawdust, vegetable plants, culled vegetables from the garden, coffee grounds, vegetable peelings, fruit peelings and egg shells all make good compostable organic material.

Stay away from table scraps or other material that may attract rodents or may give off bad odors. The microbes in the soil, bacteria and fungi do the actual work of composting.

Start by making a pile. It can be in a wooden enclosure or a circular wire fence. Make sure there is an opening so you can stir the pile.

Add a few scoops of garden soil to start the process. This will provide all the microbes you need. Remember the microbes need water, oxygen and nutrients to thrive.

Rainfall should provide most of the needed moisture. Keep the pile moist but not soggy.

Alternate the brown and green layers. The brown layers provide the carbon and the green layers provide the nitrogen. You have to keep a balance. If it’s composting too slowly, add green material or a handful of granular fertilizer to jump start it.

Remember that the microbes need to breathe as well. You need to turn the pile on a regular basis, every three to seven days. If you have the right blend of water, oxygen and air, the microbes break down the organic matter by releasing powerful enzymes.

The microbes then consume these molecules. This process generates heat. You may actually see heat rise out of a compost pile. The heat will kill weed seeds, disease organisms and nematodes. Non-composted material can’t do this.

It takes about 12 weeks for the compost to mature after going through a heat of four to six weeks. The compost will form at the bottom of the pile.

Just move the fresher material to the side to provide access to the compost. Use the compost as mulch, add to the potting mix or incorporate into the garden soil.

You also may want to start multiple compost piles. Folks who start composting never seem to have enough when you realize all the benefits of composting.

It may take over a thousand years for Mother Nature to make an inch of topsoil but you sure can speed up the process with composting.

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