home gardens

The Basics of Composting

By Dawn Pettinelli – Extension Instructor Plant Science & Landscape Architecture

Did you know that almost 25 percent of a typical household’s waste can be recycled right in the backyard? Recycling reduces the amount of solid waste being trucked and dumped into landfills, and the end product of this process, compost, is beneficial to the soil. Compost is the dark, crumbly, earthy-smelling by-product of decomposed plant and/or animal materials. Soil microorganisms transform these organic materials into their original elemental components to be reused by successive generations of plants and other life forms.

Recycle Your Waste & Improve Your Soil

Here’s the basics..what to compost, what not to compost, how to turn the compost, check temperature, and when it’s ready to use.composting

  • What can you compost?
    • Materials include leaves, grass clippings, fruit and vegetable wastes, spent garden plants, coffee grounds, eggshells, cardboard and livestock manure.
    • Avoid adding meat products, fats, dog or cat droppings, and items that could attract pests, decompose slowly, or contain harmful organisms.
    • What should you make your compost in?
      Fancy bins, drums, and turning units are available but not essential. Compost piles do not need to be contained but piles look neater and animals are kept out. Build them on any flat site that allows for a 4 cubic foot pile. Cinder blocks, pallets, or fencing can be used to enclose the pile.
    • Where should you locate your compost pile?
      Choose a partially shaded site, close to a source of water and not too far from the house.
    • Recipe for success
      Choose a compost recipe that uses the materials you have. For a fast acting, hot compost it is best to add all the ingredients at once, building a pile 3 to 4 feet high and wide. Vary the materials used and chop them so there is more surface area exposed. Add water to make piles slightly moist. Adding organic materials in layers gives a feel for the proportions used. A shovelful of soil or finished compost is added to inoculate the pile with microorganisms. Avoid adding limestone or wood ashes.
    • What is the carbon (c) to nitrogen (n) ratio and why is it important?
      Soil microbes need carbon from brown, woody materials for energy, and nitrogen from green, vegetative matter for food. The amount of carbon in a compost pile relative to the amount of nitrogen is the carbon to nitrogen (c:n) ratio. Decomposition occurs most rapidly when the c:n ratio is about 25:1. This is achieved by using one-third green to two-thirds brown materials.
    • When should compost piles be turned?
      Turn compost piles at least once a month. If making a hot compost pile, then it should heat up to 140°F in a few days and should be turned each time the pile temperature decreases to about 100°F.
    • When is the compost ready?
      Depending on the organic materials used and pile maintenance, compost is ready to use in as little as one month or up to a year. Compost is finished when the original materials are no longer recognizable and it is earthy smelling, dark, and crumbly.
    • What can you do with your compost?
      Compost can be incorporated into the soil before planting, used to topdress lawns and gardens, or added to homemade potting mixes. Keep in mind that the nutrient content of compost varies with the ingredients. Periodic soil testing will monitor the soil’s nutrient levels.


Sustainable Pest Control in Home Gardens

By Joan Allen – Assistant Extension Educator, UConn Home & Garden Center

Screen Shot 2014-03-03 at 10.49.52 AMInsects and pests are a fact of life in the home vegetable garden, but sustainable practices can keep them at tolerable levels. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is the use of a combination of tools to manage pests while minimizing the use of chemicals. IPM is most effective when used preventively before pests reach damaging levels. Many insects and other arthropods found in the garden are beneficial and prey on or parasitize harmful ones.

Keeping Garden Pests At A Tolerable Level

  • Pest identification.
    Pests must be identified for effective control. One clue is the type of feeding damage. Note whether the damage is caused by chewing or by piercing and sucking mouthparts. Pests with chewing mouthparts include beetles, caterpillars and grasshoppers. These insects leave holes on leaves, fruits or other plant parts. Aphids, true bugs, leafhoppers, and mites are pests with piercing and sucking mouthparts. Symptoms include yellowing or ‘stippling’ of leaves or deformed plant parts. Control practices will be based on the pest’s life cycle. Certain life stages, often the immature stages, might be easier to kill with a particular method than the adults.
  • Monitor for pests and beneficials
    Monitoring is important to detect pests before they reach damaging levels. Check the plants for damage and eggs, immatures and adults at least 1-2 times per week during the season. Note the presence of beneficial insects, spiders and mites. These help keep pest populations at tolerable levels. A minimal population of pests helps keep a healthy number of beneficial organisms in your garden. Many chemical control products kill beneficials along with the pests, sometimes resulting in a damaging pest outbreak. If the pest population is low or eliminated, beneficials will move to a different location in search of food.
  • Sanitation.
    Remove overripe produce from the garden. It can attract pests such as picnic beetles and yellowjackets. Removal of infested plants can reduce the populations of some insects that feed within the plant. Keeping the garden area free of weeds or mowed can eliminate alternative host plants and sheltered sites that harbor some garden pests.
  • Mechanical control
    Mechanical controls include hand removal of pests or their eggs, barriers and traps. Many pests can be controlled simply by removing them and killing them. Pests can be killed by drowning in soapy water or by crushing. Eggs can be crushed or the leaves with eggs can be removed and discarded in the trash. Barriers are effective for some pests and work by preventing access to the plants. Examples of barriers are floating row cover and ‘collars’ around the base of stems. Floating row covers block access to insects that come in from outside the garden. They must be secured on all edges to prevent insects from crawling underneath. These covers must be removed once plants begin to flower for vegetables that require pollination. Collars made of cardboard or other materials can be placed around the bases of plants to protect them from cutworms. Traps can be used for both monitoring and control. Options include pheromone lures, sticky cards and beer traps (slugs). A strong stream of water can remove delicate pests like aphids or mites.
  • Cultural practices
    The goal of cultural practices is to make the environment less favorable for the pest. They are most effective when they are tailored to the specific pest. Cultural practices include site selection, tillage, planting date, fertilization and irrigation. A good site will promote vigorous plants that are able to tolerate a moderate amount of feeding without a loss in yield. For most vegetables, this means full sun, a soil pH of 6.0-7.0, and an adequate supply of nutrients and water. Tilling the soil exposes overwintering larvae and pupae to unfavorable conditions or predators. Crops can be planted early or late to escape damage from a pest active at one end of the season.
  • Biological controls.
    These include living organisms or substances they produce. Predatory and parasitic arthropods (insects, mites and spiders) can be from naturally occurring populations or from release of purchased beneficials. One lady beetle can consume 100-300 aphids per day. Practices that support natural populations include growing flowers attractive to the adults (many feed on pollen or nectar) and minimizing the use of chemicals. Other organisms available include bacteria (or their products), fungi and beneficial nematodes. Toads and birds in the garden help too.
  • Biorational chemicals
    Biorational chemicals are those that have a low toxicity to the environment, humans and wildlife. Some are harmful to beneficials. These include botanicals, horticultural oils, insecticidal soaps, and inorganic insecticides. Botanicals include pyrethrum (pyrethrin), rotenone, and NEEM products. Horticultural oils are petroleum or plant-based. Insecticidal soaps work on soft-bodied insects or life stages by breaking down tissues. Inorganic insecticides include sulfur, silicon, and diatomaceous earth.
  • Synthetic chemicals.
    These materials are made using industrial/chemical technology. Generally, they are more toxic than other products. They often take longer to break down in the environment. Examples include carbaryl, imidacloprid and malathion.

When using insecticidal products of any kind it is important to read and follow label instructions carefully. Products may have a ‘pre-harvest interval’ or a number of days that must pass between application and harvest. Additional precautions include protective equipment that is worn during mixing or application.