Kathleen Kochanski, advertising writer

Back in the early spring, a friend of mine gave me a mini calendar with a quote-a-day from expert gardeners. Reading each day’s wisdom while sipping my morning coffee is how I start my day. The thought on May 28 was one that all (and maybe only) avid gardeners would appreciate:

I like the sight, the smell, the feel of newly turned earth. And while ordinary garden-type earth takes me as close to heaven as I should care to be, there is only one additional step for those wishing to enter paradise—compost! –Eric Grissell

I laughed out loud at that delightful ending, but I understood completely. To me, compost is as magic as it gets. That I can heap together apple peels, egg shells, potato skins, grass clippings, onion skins, autumn leaves and other organic waste and turn that mix into a rich soil-like substance that nourishes the garden is more astonishing to me than someone pulling a rabbit out of a hat. My sister-in-law uses nothing but compost when amending her garden. No fertilizer, no pesticides. Only beautiful, crumbly brown, earthy-smelling compost. I am blessed to be one of many beneficiaries of her garden’s abundance.

As a not-so-expert gardener, I had to “google” Eric Grissell, never having heard of him before. He’s an expert all right, with several gardening books to his name, all heavy on the important role of insects. He has a doctorate in entomology with an affinity for parasitic wasps, among other beneficial insects. He started three-bin composting at the tender age of 8. I’d say that makes him an expert in composting, too.

I, however, also am a not-so-expert composter. I know what I should be doing, but I have a hard time keeping the ratios of “browns” to “greens” just right, turning the pile as often as I should and keeping it moist, but not too moist. (For the right way to do composting, see the excerpt at the end from the Ohio State University Extension.)

I became so discouraged about my ineptitude in composting that I nearly gave it up. And then another friend explained her method. “I don’t worry about it,” she said. “I just throw the scraps on the pile. I don’t turn it. I don’t wet it. I don’t watch its temperature. Sooner or later, it’s ready to use.”

That was the day I stopped worrying about it, too.

Along with that no-worry approach to composting, I also love – and wholeheartedly embrace – the notion of top dressing – the practice of spreading an inch or two of compost on the surface of the garden and letting earthworms and insects work it into the soil. It not only saves me a wheelbarrow full of work, but also is better for preserving soil structure. So is no-till gardening. I’m all for that, too.

I made a long-ago promise to myself to always enjoy any time I spent in the garden. To that end, I simply do the best I can with the time I have. I’m not out to impress anyone. The garden is where I find peace and solitude. It’s also where I share my avid interest with my grandchildren. The morning glory seeds that 6-year-old Lola planted in late July last year – far too late in the season according to the books – not only bloomed profusely, but also climbed up and over a row of 9-foot-tall arborvitae. I credit my compost-amended soil for that.

Thanks to inspirational quotes, fellow master gardeners, good friends and beloved family members, I have learned that you don’t have to be an expert to be avid about gardening. That it’s OK to just go at it and see what happens. In that process, I have lost some plants and been overwhelmed by others. The Joe-Pye weed I planted four years ago has since made a surprise appearance at four other locations in the garden – with no help from me.

I still get such a kick out of planting a seed and watching it grow into a beautiful blooming plant. I never tire of the miracle. I hope I never do.

From the experts at OSU . . . What can I compost?

All yard trimmings will work as a mulch and for composting, but do not use diseased or infested plants without composting them first. Yard trimmings such as leaves, grass clippings, weeds, thatch, and the remains of garden plants make excellent compost. Other good additions to a compost pile include ground brush, wood ash, and kitchen scraps such as fruit and vegetable peelings, egg shells, and coffee grounds that would otherwise be thrown in the garbage. Care must be taken when composting kitchen scraps. Do not compost meat, bones, and fatty foods such as cheese, salad dressing, and cooking oil. These foods ferment or putrify, cause odors, and can attract rodents and other nocturnal animals that can be pests. Only experts in composting should attempt to compost these materials.

One concern with composting is the fate of lawn care pesticides. Grass clippings and leaves treated with these products should not be used as a mulch immediately after application and mowing, but should be composted. The most widely used pesticides degrade rapidly during composting or become strongly bound to organic matter in the compost. Their degradation is accelerated by the high temperatures and moist conditions that occur in a compost pile.

How to prepare and use compost

Remove grass and sod cover from the area where you construct your compost pile to allow direct contact of the materials with soil microorganisms. The following “recipe” for constructing your compost heap is recommended for best results:

1st layer: 3-4” of chopped brush or other coarse material on top of the soil surface. This material allows air circulation around the base of the heap.

2nd layer: 6-8” of mixed scraps, leaves, grass clippings, etc. Materials should be “sponge damp.”

3rd layer: 1”of soil serves as an inoculant by adding microorganisms to the heap.

4th layer: (optional) 2-3” of manure to provide the nitrogen needed by microorganisms. Sprinkle lime, wood ash, and/or rock phosphate over the layer of manure to reduce the heap’s acidity. Add water if the manure is dry. Add one pound of urea fertilizer or 10 pounds of composted poultry manure per yard of leaves or ground brush if organic sources of nitrogen are not available. Soak these high carbon materials with water before composting. Manure generally should not be used in cities to reduce the potential for fly problems.

5th layer: Repeat steps 1-4 until the bin is full. Scoop out a “basin” at the top to catch rainwater under summer conditions. A properly made heap will reach temperatures of about 140 degrees F in four to five days. At this time, you will notice the pile “settling.” This is a good sign that your heap is working properly.

After 3-4 weeks, fork the materials into a new pile, turning the outside of the old heap into the center of the new pile. Add water if necessary. It is best to turn your compost a second or third time. The compost should be ready to use within three to four months. A heap started in late spring can be ready for use in the autumn. Start another heap in autumn for use in the spring.

Source: OSU Fact Sheet HYG-1189-99, “Composting at Home.”