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It’s easy to compost at altitude, Vail Valley

Lori Russell
Special to the Vail Daily
Vail, CO Colorado

VAIL, Colorado –It’s really spring now in Colorado’s Vail Valley, and the snow has almost melted from the valley floor. That means it’s time to start turning those garden beds where you plan to plant vegetables.

Don’t have a vegetable plan? Well, consider planting an edible landscape. It can be almost as decorative as a flower garden, if properly planned. And for all your efforts, you get a lot more nutrition.

The most important thing to a bountiful veggie garden is the soil. Consider getting a soil test from the Colorado State University Extension Lab (970-491-5061) for about $28. This will tell you the health of your soil, and what the pH is.



pH is the measure of acid or alkaline in the soil. Most plants prefer a slightly acid soil of about 6.5 for best production (neutral is 7.0 and alkaline is greater than 7.0 ). A soils test will tell you what you may need to add to improve the pH.

Truth is, in Colorado, our soils are usually very alkaline, from about 7.5 to 8.5 and need to supplements to make them more acidic and more suitable for vegetables. But even if you don’t do a soils test, you can’t go wrong by adding compost to your soil. Compost is the decayed, broken-down end product of all living matter. Compost results when organic matter such as grass clippings or leaves is eaten and digested by bacteria. The metabolic waste of bacteria is a substance called humus.



The humus will make the soil more acidic. Humus is the stuff in soil that gives the blackish cast and earthy smell. It’s what’s left over of the organic matter after it has been broken down by the billions of micro organism, bacteria, phages, fungi, earthworms and bugs responsible for decomposition. Humus is rich in minerals and nutrients vital to the health of all plants.

Composting is one of the best and easiest ways to recycle. Each year, 30 percent to 50 percent of all the waste at the landfill could be composted, and help replenish the health of our soils and reduce landfill waste. All communities should be composting. It should be part of every backyard garden.

Compost is easy to make even if you have little space. And it’s the easiest way to get rid of all your kitchen scraps and all yard waste, like grass clippings and leaves. In a warm (sunny) corner of your backyard, you can just heap a pile of yard waste and kitchen scraps, and eventually local bacteria will find it and eat it up. (If you don’t have this kind of space, a black plastic garbage can will do.)



But in our cold climate in Colorado, this can take six months to a year. So there are a few things you can do to help the bacteria out and hasten their job.

First, all organic, compostable material is divided into two groups: animal manure and green, wet material, which is anything still green and moist like grass clippings, fresh leaves, kitchen scraps and coffee grounds. These things are high in nitrogen, an essential nutrient for the hungry bacteria, and for your plants.

The second group is dry, brown material, already dried out by the sun, like brown grass or hay, dry leaves, sawdust and peat moss. Because these items have been dried and aged by the sun, most of their nitrogen has leached out, leaving the carbon, the structure of all life.

Both carbon and nitrogen are essential nutrients for bacteria to grow. So it is important to provide lots of both in your compost pile.

So as you pile up fresh, wet kitchen scraps in your compost pile, layer it every few inches with hay. I keep a bale of hay beside my compost. If you don’t have hay, shredded newspaper also will help absorb some the moisture and provide extra carbon. Then water your pile enough to moisten it (not too wet), and cover it with plastic to keep it warm. Bacteria work best in temperatures over 100 degrees.

It is important to add some fresh air now and then so the bacteria can breathe. Simply stir and turn the pile a couple times a month, or roll your trash can around with the lid on. In a couple months you will have rich, black compost to feed your garden with.

We will learn more about composting, plus many tips to improve your composting, in a organic gardening class at Colorado Mountain College from May 3 to 8. For more information, call 970-328-5324 or call the college in Edwards at 970-569-2900.


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