IN THE GARDEN: Compost is the gardener’s gold

Thursday, August 2, 2018 - 12:06

The key to a healthy garden is rich, fertile soil. Establishing a good source of compost and adding this to your garden nourishes both the garden plants and the creatures that live in healthy soil. Applying compost to your soil can help stabilize the pH at the level most plants prefer.

When you make your own compost, you are doing what nature is doing all the time naturally around us — only faster. The soil-dwelling microbes are doing the work of decomposing. This slow process by the microbes releases nutrients at a rate that plants can use them.

This compost process will help your garden by providing nutrients for vigorous plant growth. The aeration of the compost improves soil structure and improves the soil’s ability to retain water. I’m sure you have seen water just running off your soil instead of sinking in. Thick compost stops this water runoff. Compost contributes to the health of the plants by producing growth-stimulating hormones and chemicals that can be easily taken up and used by the plants. By moderating the pH of the soil, compost can distribute our acidic soils that we have here for better growth.

One of the most important things that compost does is to feed the millions of microorganisms in the soil. The bacteria and fungi, nematodes, protozoa and earthworms are dependent on compost to survive and thrive. One of my favorite books on this subject of microbes is “Teaming with Microbes” by Jeff Lowenfels, which really helped me to understand the importance that these little critters play in the world of dirt.

Some of the following are examples of what can go into your compost pile and it is no means an exhaustive list:

Vegetable peels, stalks and foliage, potatoes skins and vines, rhubarb leaves, shells of ground up crab, clams, mussel or oyster (well buried); sod; weeds; straw; grass clippings; hops from beer brewing; coffee grinds; kelp; leaf mold and leaves; fruit peels; pea pods and vines; cucumber vines; crushed egg shells; farm animal manure; broccoli stalks (but not the roots); cabbage stalks and leaves (but not the roots)’ flowers. Avoid pine needles, as our soils are already too acidic.

Compost browns are the sources of carbon that should make up 30 percent of your compost. These browns are the dried out stems and stalks and leaves of the plants, dried autumn leaves, straw, hay, wood shavings or sawdust. The ratio is 30 brown to 1 part green, which is the nitrogen. This is a layering process, like building lasagna. The nitrogen greens are any fresh or slightly wilted plants or grass clippings that have not had herbicides applied and non poisonous weeds before they go to seed.

Never use dog and cat wastes in the compost or meat and dairy products. I am pretty choosy about what goes into my compost pile. As a result, I have very little of the invasive weeds like chickweed, etc. in my garden beds. Never put diseased plants in your compost pile.

You can cover your pile with a nylon tarp or black plastic and this will reduce evaporation and prevents overwatering by rain. The black plastic absorbs the sun and will heat up the pile which is desirable.

When getting your compost pile started, there are two types of composting to consider. All composting gives off a certain amount of heat by the bacterial action of the microbes, but generally there is hot and cold composting. The hot method of composting is a quick and sure way to produce large amounts of compost fairly rapidly. The advantage of hot composting is that you kill off many of the pathogenic organisms and weed seeds that may be present in your compost materials. The hot compost will work best if it is made up all at once and allowed to cook without adding more material. The cold method of composting is slow and steady and it will not destroy the pathogens or weed seeds. Cold piles are perfect for recycling small amounts in a steady stream of organic matter. This method can take over a year with very little intervention except to turn the pile and add water to it. You are basically letting nature do the work.

All compost needs water added to keep this process going. Your pile should be moist but not soggy. Add water as you are building your pile, especially the browns. A six-tine manure fork is best for turning and aerating the pile. Your lawn mower will work well to chop up your leaves and other composting material. You can run over it a few times and then rake it up or use the lawn mower bag and then toss it into your pile. The compost pile needs air and that is why you will see compost piles made in wire bins and wooden bins with slats.

You will get the best results if you regularly tend to your compost pile and check the center of the pile temperature with a long compost thermometer. You want the temperature to be about 140-160 degrees F, and whenever you see the temperature of the pile dropping, turn the pile and moisten if necessary. Fluff the pile to aerate it and move the outside of the pile to the center.

Humus is the end product of fully decomposed compost. This humus stimulates seed germination by providing essential minerals that are already present in the soil more available to the plants. This process will reduce the need for fertilizers as a result. You will come to appreciate what good compost can do to help you improve your garden soil. Give this garden gold a try.

For questions or column ideas, write to Chris Wood at [email protected]

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