Organic Gardening, or more simply put 'Gardening the Natural Way', is rapidly growing in popularity.
Below is a document with a brief introduction to this method as recommended by Bella Vista Garden Club member, Tony LiCausi.
Quotation from Malcolm Beck - Continued
Lawn planting techniques can be quite simple and economical, or complicated and wasteful. If you follow these simple techniques, your lawn establishment can be successful and affordable.
Soil preparation should include the hand or mechanical removal of all weeds, debris, and rocks more than two inches in diameter from the surface of the soil. Rocks within the soil are no problem because they can actually aid drainage. Herbicides are unnecessary and not recommended. Products like Round Up are toxic and should not be used.
Lightly till or scarify the topsoil to a depth of two inches, rake smooth, and gently slope to prevent ponding of water. Deep roto-tilling is unnecessary and a waste of money unless the soil is heavily compacted. In fact, roto-tilling can actually damage the soil, especially if there are trees on the site. Although the introduction of some organic material can be beneficial, soil amendments in general are unnecessary and only on solid rock areas is the addition of native topsoil needed. Imported foreign topsoil is a waste of money and can cause a perched (trapped) water table and lawn problem. Poor drainage is often a result of this procedure.
Prior to seeding, spray the soil with a biostimulant such as compost tea and treat the seed with one of the same products. Apply a light application of organic fertilizer at the same time of the first mowing. Good choices include compost, humate, and earthworm castings. Micronized products that contain my corrhizal fungi are also very helpful.
Severely sloped areas should have an erosion protection material, such as jute mesh, placed on the soil prior to planting. Some people still recommend and use toxic herbicides to kill weeds prior to planting. I don’t. These chemicals are extremely hazardous and hard on the life in the soil. Use a little more elbow grease and dig the weeds out. The weed’s root system will actually help you establish the permanent grasses.
Weeds can also be killed with vinegar or fatty acid products. Seeding and hydromulching should be placed in direct contact with the soil. If hydromulching is used, the seed should be broadcast onto the bare soil first and then the hydromulch blown on top of the seed. One of the worst mistakes is mixing the seed in the hydromulch. This causes the seed to germinate in the mulch, suspended above the soil, and many of the seeds are lost from drying out.
After spreading seed, thoroughly soak the seeded area as necessary to keep it moist. As the seed germinates watch for bare spots. Reseed these bare areas immediately. Continue to use the light watering until the grass has solidly covered the area. At this time, begin the regular watering and maintenance program. Deep, infrequent watering is best. Light watering done every day or every other day causes all kinds of problems, such as shallow roots, salt buildup in the top soil, and high water bills.
Solid sod blocks should be laid joint to joint after applying a liquid stimulant to the ground. Sod should be moistened on the bottom (soil-side) before laying on moist ground. Grading, leveling, and smoothing prior to planting is important. Rolling with a heavy hand roller after planting is important to eliminate air pockets, which can cause brown spots in the sod. The joints between the blocks of sod can be filled with compost or granite sand to give a more finished look to the lawn, but this step is optional.
ORGANIC BED PREPARATION (GENERAL)
New Beds with no Grass or Existing Beds: No excavation is needed. Add four to six inches of compost, organic fertilizer (two pounds per hundred square feet), volcanic rock sand at four to ten pounds per hundred square feet and cornmeal and /or dry molasses at one to two pounds per hundred square feet, rototill or fork to a total overall depth of eight inches. Topdress bed with a two-to-three inch layer of shredded native-tree-trimmings mulch after planting.
Mulch is a critical ingredient in any organic program. It helps conserve moisture, buffers the soil from temperature extremes, shades out weeds, looks nice, and increases the tilth of the soil. It also supplies food for soil life and nutrients for the soil, keeps raindrops from compacting the soil, keeps the sun from burning the humus out of the soil, and prevents erosion.
YOUR BASIC MULCH OPTIONS
Compost: Compost is an excellent mulch for annuals and perennials and for use as a top-dressing mulch for newly planted young trees. A light layer of compost is also beneficial on new shrub and groundcover beds prior to the addition of the coarse mulch. Compost is magic! At least it contains nature’s magic. It is also effective to use around sick trees and other plants to help them recover. Compost is nature’s fertilizer. A thin layer of compost is the best choice for young seedlings of any kind. Cypress Chips: Shredded cypress mulch is not good mulch and shouldn’t be used. It’s long lasting but that isn’t a good thing. Mulch should break down relatively quickly to produce humus and organic acids to feed microorganisms. Harvest cypress from coastal areas is an environmental mistake. Hardwood Bark: Shredded hardwood bark is an excellent mulch material for ornamental planting beds. It is fibrous and has coarse and fine particles, so it grows fungi quickly. The microbes lock the material together to prevent washing and blowing, but still allows air transfer to the soil. Hardwood mulch is one of the best choices to use around newly planted trees, shrubs, and other permanent plants. It’s also good for potted plants.
Hay: Clean hay is good for vegetable gardens. Alfalfa is the best choice - Bermuda is the worst because of possible broadleaf herbicide contamination. Eight-to-ten inch layers are needed to prevent weed seed germination.
Pine Bark: Pine bark is used widely as a bed preparation material, but shouldn’t be. First of all, it won’t stay in place and has a strong tendency to wash and blow away. Very fine particles of mulch can sometimes rob some of the nitrogen from the soil. The large size deco bark is a fair mulch to use for shrubs and ground covers. The large size of the deco bark allows air to flow around the large pieces and down to the soil and to the plants roots. Fine and medium size pine bark is not a good mulch choice. As pine bark breaks down, some rather nasty, natural chemicals are released.
Pine Needles: Pine needles are an excellent mulch to use in most planting beds, but they are certainly more appropriate when used in areas where pine trees grow, so they don’t look out of place. Pine needles are a much better choice than pine bark.
Shredded Native Tree Trimmings: This mulch is good to use in large areas as a natural ground cover. If ground into smaller texture, this mulch can be used on all types of plants. Because of the buds and cambium layer under the bark, this mulch contains more nitrogen than most mulches and, therefore, doesn’t take any nitrogen from the soil. Shredded trees and shrubs from your own property are my favorite of all mulches. This material, when partially composted or mixed with compost, is the very best of all.
These mulches are known as “living mulches”.
NATURAL ORGANIC MAINTENANCE - Working With Nature’s Systems
NATURAL TREE CARE
Pruning: Is it time to thin my trees and cut off the lower limbs? My answer to these common questions might surprise you. There seems to be an abundance of curious tree-pruning advice still around. Let’s try to straighten it out.
Pruning too much is the most common mistake. Few trees need major pruning every year. Other than some fruit trees, few trees need annual thinning and, unless lower limbs are a physical problem, they should be left on the tree.
Timing: Landscape trees can be pruned any time of the year, but the best time is from fall to late winter. Fruit trees should be pruned from mid winter up until just before bud break because pruning induces bud break and flowering. Early flowers and late freezes spell no fruit.
Amount of Pruning: Pruning trees is part science and part art. Don’t try to change the character and overall, long-term shape of a tree, and don’t remove lower limbs to raise the canopy. Low growing limbs exist for a reason. It’s very unnatural to strip tree trunks bare. If you think that looks good, think again. Remove dead, diseased, broken, or damaged limbs and the weakest of crossing limbs that are dangerous or physically interfere with buildings or activities. Thinning to eliminate a certain percentage of the foliage is usually a mistake. Heavy thinning of a tree’s canopy throws the plant out of balance, inviting wind and ice storm damage. The resulting stress attracts diseases and insect pest. Gutting (heavy interior pruning) is never appropriate.
Pruning Cuts: Pruning cuts should be made with sharp tools. Hand tools such as bow saws, Japanese pruning saws, loppers and pole pruners are good for small limbs. Chain saws can be used for larger limbs, but only with great care and a thorough understanding of the equipment.
Flush cuts should never be made. Cuts leaving a 1/16th inch stub is also not good. Pruning cuts should be made at the point where the branch meets the trunk just outside the branch collar. The branch collar can extend from several inches to as much as a foot or more on large limbs. It will also be wider at the bottom of the limb than at the top. Cuts made at the right place leave a round wound. Improper flush cuts leave oval wounds and cause cavities to form in the trunk long term.
It’s scientific fact that cutting into or removing the branch collar causes problems. Flush cuts encourage decay. They also destroy the natural protective zone between the trunk and the branch and can cause several serious tree problems including discolored wood, decayed wood, wet wood, resin pockets, cracks, sun injury, cankers, and slowed growth of new wood. Proper cuts are round, smaller, and heal much faster. Peach, plum, apricot, and other fruit trees are particularly sensitive to flush cuts. Many fruit tree insects and disease problems are related to improper pruning cuts. Long branch stubs can also be detrimental sometimes and should be avoided. However, it is always better to err on the side of stubs too long than too short.
Wound Dressings: Research by Alex Shigo, Carl Whitcomb, and the U.S. Forest Service has shown that pruning paint and wound dressings have no benefit and can be harmful by slowing the healing process. Healthy tissue needed for callus formation can be damaged or killed by pruning paint or dressings. Trees have defense cells, much like white blood cells in mammals. These lignin cells are produced on the backside of a wound to naturally prevent diseases from entering fresh cuts. Just as a cut finger heals faster when exposed to the air, so does a tree wound.
Cavities: Cavities are often caused by flush cuts. Cavities in trees are voids where fungi have rotted healthy material. They are usually the result of physical injury. Removing only the decayed material is the remedy. Fillers such as concrete and foam are only cosmetic and are not recommended. When removing decayed matter from cavities, be careful not to cut or punch into the healthy tissue. Injuries to healthy tissue can introduce further decay into the tree.
When cavities hold water, drain tubes are sometimes inserted to release water. Bad idea. Drain tubes puncture the protective barriers between the rotted and healthy wood and allow decay to expand. I don’t recommend any of the trunk injector systems for fertilizer and insect control because of their puncture wounds - plus they miss the main problem of improving the health of the soil.
Cabling: Weak crotches between limbs can sometimes be stopped from splitting by installing cables horizontal to the ground so the natural movement of the tree is not completely stopped. Cabling used to hold up low growing limbs is poor tree care and a waste of money. Cabling can be very dangerous and should only be done by professional arborist. In most cases, I do not recommend it.
Fertilizing: Since all plants require food, trees should not be overlooked when a landscape is fertilized. The easiest way to fertilize trees is in conjunction with the general fertilization of the grass and planting beds. The feeder roots are near the surface, and the tree will use whatever nutrients are there. Remember that more than 80 percent of a tree’s root system is in the top twelve to eighteen inches of soil.
Putting fertilizer in holes drilled throughout the root zone is not a good idea for general fertilization, but is effective for a specific deficiency such as chlorosis. The roots will take the concentrated material (sulfur, iron, or magnesium, for example) from the cores as needed. What’s better is to feed the entire root zone with compost and quality organic fertilizers.
A good balanced, organic fertilizer is perfect for establishing a healthy condition for trees. Fertilizer should be applied two or three times a year, as with other plantings. Placing a layer of compost over the entire root zone of the tree (and beyond) will help greatly to feed the soil and thus the tree.
Healthy plants will repel insects and diseases, reducing or eliminating the need for pest control products. Periodic applications of foliar food are also beneficial. The best foliar feeding product is aerated compost tea or mycorrihizal fungi products.
Aeration: Mechanical hole punching of the soil is recommended for sick trees, especially in clay or other heavy soils. Oxygen is one of the most important elements in healthy soil. Air penetration helps greatly to stimulate microbal activity and root growth. Physical aeration help is only needed in the first year of any organic program. Healthy soil will have natural aeration.
Pest Control: Occasionally, trees need to be sprayed to control certain pests or to give them a little extra nutrient punch. In an organic program, this can be accomplished in one step, reducing the cost once again. Aerated compost tea is the best tool. Foliar feeding will indirectly help control most harmful insects without killing the beneficial ones. At the same time, the sprays provide nutrients for the tree. Foliar feeding helps with pest control by improving the immune system of the plants and by feeding and stimulating beneficial microorganisms. When orange oil or d-limonene is added at two ounces per gallon of spray, the spray actually kills pests. It will also kill beneficials so use sparingly.
One of the most persistent pests is the aphid, which is the most prevalent in the spring when trees start their active growth cycle. Aphids damage plants by sucking the juices from tender, new growth. There is a very easy way to control aphids - spray with garlic/pepper tea, or molasses and orange oil at two ounces per gallon of water. A water blast followed by the release of ladybugs is my favorite aphid control because it doesn’t hurt the beneficials.
Protecting and adding to the beneficial insect population will give effective control for aphids and other harmful insects. Good insects include ground beetles, spiders, ladybugs, green lacewings, praying mantis, wasps, and mud daubers, but there are many more.
Taking care of trees using common-sense techniques and safe products is easy and cost effective. The results are better than using toxic chemical treatments, which will destroy many beneficial insects while only reducing a percentage of the target pest insects. Imagine being able to spray trees without worrying about wind drift, lawsuits, over-application of material, and the real possibility that the environment is being harmed each time a pesticide is applied. That’s the beauty of tree care using the natural approach - it is safer and it works better - in every way!
Grass is the most intensely maintained of all plants and the biggest expense in most landscape maintenance budgets. It is scalped, mowed, fertilized, sprayed before weeds appear, sprayed after weeds appear, walked on, driven on, and usually abused all during the year. As with all plant types,there are some cost effective, organic approaches for the natural care of grasses.
Mowing: Many turf areas are mowed too low. When grass is mowed short, the root system is correspondingly too short. That increases the demand for water and food, encourages weeds to germinate, and can cause the lawn to decline.
Generally, turf should be mowed to a height of at least two and a half inches or taller and should not be allowed to grow taller than one-third of its height between mowing. Cutting more than one-third of the grass blades can cause noticeable damage to the grass, which can take several days to overcome.
Another important mowing technique is to leave the grass clippings on the ground. Don’t bag them and haul them away - a practice that wastes time and money and is detrimental to the lawn. There’s also an environmental issue related to the crowded condition of municipal land fills. Grass clippings in plastic bags have been responsible for a large percentage of the waste in city dumps.
Grass clippings left on the lawn will decompose rapidly in the presence of water and organic fertilizer, creating food for microbes and the resulting humus in the soil. Since the organic matter makes the soil healthier, the number of weeds will be reduced. Discarding the grass clippings also throws nutrients away. Test at the University of Connecticut agricultural experiment station showed, through the use of radioactive isotopes, that nitrogen in grass clippings left on the lawn was back in the growing plants in as short a time as one week.
Scalping a lawn in the spring is a waste of time and money. It is also harmful to the lawn. When the soil is exposed through scalping, humus is burned out of the soil, microbes suffer, and wee seed germinate.
Aeration: Aerating the soil is an important procedure in establishing soil health and going “organic.” Soil will naturally become aerated by the addition of humus and the stimulation of earthworm and microbial activity if given enough time. All you have to do is add compost and organic fertilizers and stop using harsh, synthetic products and nature will take over. However, most of us want the process to go faster, and the answer is “punching holes” in the ground. These holes can be punched with a stiff-tined turning fork or any spiked tool. The most convenient method is to buy or rent an aerator or hire a landscape contractor to use a mechanical aerator to poke holes all over the yard.
Mechanical aerators are available in all shapes and sizes with many features. Some just punch small holes, others remove cores, and some inject water while punching holes. Some can even punch holes twelve inches deep. All these machines work. The more holes, the better and the deeper the holes, the better. Just choose a machine that fits your budget, because the cost ranges greatly. The object is getting oxygen into the soil. When that happens, microbe populations start to increase instantly, natural nitrogen cycles function properly, and nature’s wonderful systems are set in motion.
It’s not necessary to understand all the systems in great detail - it’s only important to respect their presence and let them work for you. Fertilizing Lawns: Another tip for good organic lawn care is to avoid synthetic chemical fertilizers, which are usually applied three, four, or more times a year. They green up a lawn quickly, but their effect soon fall off as the chemicals are leached out of the soil or washed down the street. Besides, they create a major hardship for the poor guy who’s pushing the mower because chemical fertilizers create flushes of heavy growth. Synthetic fertilizers feed the plants artificially, too fast and do nothing for the soil, so their long-term effect is quite damaging.
Organic fertilizers provide the proper nutrients without damaging the soil. Natural fertilizers only need to be applied two or three times a year, are safe, and don’t leach away. They release nutrients slowly, feeding the plants only what’s needed and at the proper time. The result is green healthy grass with slower, more consistent growth, making it easier to avoid having to catch the grass clippings.
Fertilizing Lawn: Supplemental feeding of a lawn can be done at any time using liquid foliar sprays such as aerated compost tea. Foliar feeding will prevent the chlorotic look that lawns often have in late summer when the hot, dry days take their toll. It can also be used on grass areas any time to give the color a boost. Foliar feeding can reduce stress damage and improve cold tolerance. Liquid seaweed is an important ingredient in any spray program.
Spreader Settings: Most broadcast spreaders, set fully open, will dispense the fertilizer at approximately ten pounds per thousand square feet per pass. A crisscross application usually gives the recommended twenty pounds. Pest Control: The next lawn care necessity is spraying for all the things that don’t belong. Most of the harmful insects, fungi, and bacteria can be controlled with beneficial nematodes and food products such as garlic and cornmeal. Plant Wash is an excellent commercial product. A healthy soil that drains well is the best long-term control.
Weeds can be controlled with organic products. Building a healthy soil, applying adequate organic fertilizer and water, and mowing on time will prevent most weeds, but there are no nontoxic herbicides on the market today that are foolproof. The only foolproof method of safely eliminating weeds is hand pulling or mechanical devices. Organic herbicide can be made by mixing one teaspoon of soap, one ounce of orange oil, and one tablespoon of molasses into one gallon of 10 percent white vinegar.
Composting Lawns: Composting helps both in fertilization and weed control. A one-quarter to one-inch layer of compost spread over a lawn once a year will provide the grass most of the nutrients it needs. It is an expensive process compared to cheap chemical fertilizers, but it improves the health of the soil and grass and will act as a buffer to extreme climatic changes and even to harsh chemicals. When the funds are limited, composting every other year will usually be adequate. This process isn’t needed any longer once the soil is healthy.
Compost will also help prevent weeds by increasing the health of the soil. Few noxious weeds will grow in a healthy, balanced soil, and the few that do appear are easily removed by hand or spot spraying. Learning to accept a lawn with a mix of grasses, wildflowers, and herbs is not only okay but recommended. We call that “multi-species” turf. Safe lawn care is critical because the lawn is where the most people-use occurs, and the absence of chemicals means a healthier environment for children, pets, and others.
Renovating a Worn-Out Lawn: For compacted, weedy, unhealthy lawn areas, first mechanically aerate and don’t be bashful - tear up the ground. Next, spray the area with aerated compost tea. Next, apply an organic fertilizer at twenty pounds per thousand square feet. For additional help, add one-fourth inch of compost, which is about one cubic yard per 1,300 sq. ft.
SHRUB, GROUD COVER, VINE, AND FLOWER CARE
Shrubs, ground covers, flowers, and vines are the easiest plants to maintain. Sometimes they need light pruning, fertilizing and even spraying, but they are easily accessible (unlike trees), and do not require intense maintenance like grass.
Pruning: Pruning shrubs, ground covers and perennial flowers is really quite simple. Only remove enough growth to keep the plants under control. For example, most ground covers will need to be pruned back once in the early spring to remove the dead stubble and after that only when they encroach on paved surfaces or other planting areas. Ground covers and vines should be removed from the trunks and bases of trees every winter.
Perennials should be pruned in the late fall or winter to remove the previous year’s dead growth. Or prune in the season opposite the bloom period. For example, prune spring-blooming perennials in the fall and fall-blooming perennials in the spring. Additional heavy pruning after strong flushes of flowers have started to play out will often promote a new flush of flowers. Pruning: Shrubs need more frequent pruning to keep them under control.
Light, selective pruning is the best technique. Never prune shrubs by removing a large amount of growth or by constantly “boxing” them, which remove all the new growth. Not only does it make the shrub look artificial, it will ultimately ruin the usefulness of the plant and weaken it by reducing the photosynthetic surface. The exception here, of course, is a formal garden, which does require clipped hedges.
Fertilizing: As with trees and lawns, landscape beds should be fed with organic fertilizers two or three times a year. Flowers will usually need supplemental fertilizers like aerated compost tea, fish meal, or organic fertilizers. Micronized products are also helpful.
Pest Control: As a general rule, spraying to kill insects is not necessary and should not be done on a calendar or preventative basis, but, instead at the first sign of infestation. For example, the annual ritual of applying insecticides in August for grub worms is one of the most blatant wastes of money and sources of pollution in landscape maintenance. Grubs are only damaging enough to treat when eight to ten per square foot are found. Most grub worms are actually beneficial. Work to improve the soil through aeration and organic fertilizers. Dry molasses and beneficial nematodes will eliminate heavy infestations.
Composting: Compost should be used around shrubs, ground covers, and flowers to help increase soil health, moisture retention, climate buffering, and weed control. Whenever compost is used as a mulch, it should be spread approximately one and half to two inches deep. Once the ground is covered with plant growth, a light (one-half inch) application is enough.
Interior Plants: Interior plants should be planted in well-drained, organic potting soil. My favorites are mixes of compost, coconut fiber, and expanded shale. Soil Mender makes this formula. Potting soil should not be sterile, but alive with microorganisms and earthworms. Some of the best fertilizers for interior plants include earthworm castings, kelp meal, and coffee grounds. They are mild and odor free. Volcanic rock such as lava sand should also be added to the potting soils. Pests on interior plants are best controlled by using liquid seaweed, Neem, garlic tea, and bio-stimulants. Orange oil products can be used for severe problems. Plant Wash is one of the best products for both insect and disease issues.
For success, give your interior plant plenty of light, moderate amounts of water and fertilizer and a gentle misting of water regularly. If your water is alkaline, add one tablespoon of apple cider vinegar to each gallon of water. Organic maintenance in general is really just a matter of copying what Nature does when left alone - it allows only adaptable plants to survive, strives to keep the ground covered, and utilizes organic matter in a never-ending cycle. Man has disrupted that cycle over the years, but, by using common sense and natural organic products, the balance can be reestablished. Patterning any landscape, maintenance program after Nature’s own cycles will go a long way toward repairing the damage that has been done. You will grow more beautiful plants that ever imagined.
MAKING AERATED COMPOST TEA
To make quality compost tea, start with good fungus-filled compost that contains aerobic beneficial microbes, then make them multiply by feeding and aerating them with a simple aquarium pump to increase the number of microbes including bacteria, fungi, protozoa, flagellates, and beneficial nematodes. Typical garden soils are weakest in fungi species, and this procedure helps them greatly. Buy a pump rated for about a fifty-gallon aquarium. Do not overdo the movement of tea and beat your fungus to death, but provide enough oxygen to keep the tea from going anaerobic.
Air stones, also from the pet store, are used to pump air through the tea by creating lots of bubbles. When stones become stained from the tea, clean them between each batch of tea by soaking them in a hydrogen peroxide (3 percent solution that comes from the grocery store). Cleaning the tea maker between every batch is very important.
Worm castings are one of the best composts for making tea, but any quality compost will work. Compost can be put in a nylon tea bag or loose. Larger air stones go on the bottom of the bucket. Small air stones can be put in the tea bag. Five gallon buckets are good to use and will make about four gallons of tea. Add one-half ounce of molasses per gallon of water to help feed the microbes. Too much molasses can destroy microbes in the tea.
Look at the movement of the water to make sure you have plenty of air and water movement. Put a lid on the bucket and let the tea brew for six to eight hours. Molasses will give the tea a sweet smell. When the molasses is used up, the aroma of the tea will change to a yeasty aroma. Remove the tea bags if used and continue to brew the tea with the air pump running for another sixteen to twenty hours. The tea will start to deteriorate immediately after the air pump is turned off. You can prolong the life of the tea for a day by leaving the air on, but, when all the food has been used up, it will deteriorate even with the air on. Never try to store your finished tea in a closed container. It will develop pressure inside and blow.
Five gallons of tea will cover an acre of planting, used as a spray. As a soil drench five gallons will cover about ten thousand square feet of lawn or garden from a watering can. It doesn’t matter how much water you use to dilute and spread the tea. For further tips visit: captaincompostalabama.com
Compost is a living fertilizer that can be made at home or purchased ready to use. A compost pile can be started at any time of the year. Any thing once alive can and should be composted. Good ingredients include leaves, hay, grass clippings, tree trimmings, food scraps, dead animals, bark, sawdust, rice hulls, weeds, spoiled food, nut hulls, animal manure, and anything else that was once alive. Mix the ingredients together in a container of wood, hay bales, hog wire, concrete blocks or simply pile the material on the ground. Unless space is limited, free standing piles are preferred.
The ideal mixture is 80 percent vegetative matter and 20 percent animal waste, although any mix will compost. The ingredients should be basically a mix of coarse and fine-textured material. Avoid having all the pieces of material the same size. Large particles help aerate the pile and smaller pieces are needed to help hold moister and protect microbes.
Try to turn the pile at least once a month; oxygen speeds up the process. Keep the pile moist, roughly the moisture of a squeezed-out sponge, to help the living microorganisms thrive and work their magic. If you never turn the pile, it will still compost - it will just be slower.
Compost is ready to use when the ingredients are no longer identifiable. The color will be dark brown, the texture soft and crumbly, and the aroma that of a forest floor. Use compost in all bed preparation and as a high-quality mulch around annuals and perennials.