Itʼs November and like most of us gardeners, you might be one of those that didnʼt get to every single thing on your “to-do” list. Maybe it was building those raised beds, edging that border, planting those perennials. Whatever it is, the Autumn is still a good time to put your nose to the grindstone and get gardening!
Okay, with the shift in daylight hours you may be more inclined to crawl under the blankets and settle into much- deserved winter hibernation, and I couldnʼt blame you. But, while youʼre snug as a bug under the covers, your garden is bare, desolate, and woefully in need of a blanket, one made of compost (or at the very least, some autumn leaves)
If you donʼt already compost, here are a few great reasons why you should, and the Fall is the perfect season to begin!
Black Gold or Why Compost is King
Compost is an amazing thing. It is teeming with micro and macro organisms, bacteria and fungi. According to the website Compost Heaven (http://www.compostheaven.com/compost.html) one single teaspoon of the stuff is inhabited by “up to a billion bacteria, 440-900 feet of fungal hyphae, and 10,000 to 50,000 protozoa.” Dubbed by soil science experts as “micro-herds,” they work together to breakdown organic matter, recycle nutrients, and create humus. Humus (not to be confused with Hummus!) is a dark colored, super stable, nutrient rich material that is essential to soil fertility.
High quality compost is among the best things you can work into your garden beds; it can remediate soil, improve drainage, as well as increase nutrient and water retention. It has also been found to help suppress diseases and pests, and best of all reduce the need for fertilizers. Add to these reasons the concept of keeping valuable organic “feedstock” such as vegetable scraps, grass clipping, leaves (yes leaves!) out of landfill and youʼve got some powerful incentives to begin to compost yourself.
Good gardeners (and farmers) know that bare soil is an affront to good soil management. Bare soil is not only susceptible to the vagaries of erosion, it also leads to soil nutrient leaching (a growing problem that shows up as dead zones in our waterways). Whether you plant a cover crop, mulch with leaves, straw or use compost, the important concept is to avoid bare soil. The garden bed layered with that beautiful black gold will warm up faster in the Spring than one left uncovered, and will improve the nutrition of whatever you plant. One caveat is that you must wait until the ground freezes before mulching, so that the soil temperature remains stable and fluctuations donʼt occur.
Itʼs just a matter of time as to when your compost is ready, and
from personal experience, one could layer your compost up, sprinkle it with water every week or so, and get compost even if one never turns it. Not even once! With time, hose hardworking micro-herds will do all the work. If you give them a little more oxygen (by turning your pile), then theyʼll work a bit faster. If not, then theyʼll work at a natural pace–either way youʼll end up with some nice rich compost in the end.
Build it and they will come
Similar to making a seven layer dip, but with a lot less effort, a compost pile or bin is easier to make than you might otherwise think. All you need is a space that is reasonably close to a water source, out of the blazing sun (part shade is nice), and out of sight. A four by four space is the perfect dimension to start your pile, bin, or what have you. Bigger is not better, so if you think youʼll really be digging this composting thing, plan your space for two or three. A four by four bin will build up sufficient heat to get your compost cooking, while bins of larger or smaller dimensions will not.
The “structure” you use can be as low tech as simply alternately piling up each layer in a mound, or you can get fancier with sides made out of wire, wood or cinder blocks or buy pre-fab compost bins that neaten things up. There are many types of bins to choose from, but for a long-term investment, avoid wooden bins, which (by necessity are untreated) will eventually rot. If you worry about rats or other varmints, you can reduce their presence by keeping those foods on the “donʼt” list out of your compost and by keeping the pile wet like a wrung out sponge. Remember to bury the latest kitchen contribution within the pile and adding some compost from last season or ordinary garden soil, to make it less appealing.
If you think about it, even a rat wouldnʼt find a damp space like your compost pile hospitable enough to take residence in. Also remember that rats and all other four legged critters we share this planet with are an integral part of the food web. Owls, hawks and the other wild critters that prey on them will keep the odd rat or two in check with no problem.
Recipe for Success
What will go into the mix are simply two types of materials composed of nitrogen (greens) and carbon (browns). Layer these up as you go. By shooting for a Carbon to Nitrogen ratio of 30:1 youʼll be providing your micro-herds the right food in the right balance to break down organic matter. There are many great resources on what can be composted and what canʼt, but here is a quick rundown of them. Remember to keep your pile moist like a wrung out sponge and youʼll be on your way!
- Leaves, straw (not hay!)
- Brown Paper, Paper rolls, newspaper
- Spent Potting mix
- Grass Clippings
- Vegetable + Fruit trimmings
- Coffee Grinds/Tea Bags
- Crushed Egg Shells
- Aluminum, tin or other meta
- Dairy products (butter, milk, sour cream, yogurt) & eggs
- Fats, grease, lard, or oils
- Greasy or oily foods
- Meat or seafood scraps
- Pet wastes (e.g., dog or cat feces, soiled cat litter)
- Soiled diapers
- Stickers from fruits or vegetables (to prevent litter)
- Black walnut tree leaves or twigs
- Yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides
- Roots of perennial weeds
- Coal or charcoal ash
- Fire starter logs
- Treated or painted wood
Rather than making numerous trips out to the compost to dispose of your kitchen scraps, there are many styles of compost containers that let you build up a stash for a week or so. Choose one that you can easily fit under your sink, or one you wouldnʼt mind on your counter and youʼll be set to begin collecting.
A well-balanced compost pile with sufficient airflow through will be odorless and the resulting finished compost will be soil-like in texture with an aroma of good earth.
Leave ʻem there:
Before you run out and get your hands dirty, I must make this last appeal. Have you ever stepped into a woodland setting and wondered why these natural places are so lush with plants and life? Once we acknowledge that no “gardener” weeds, waters or fertilizes, we are naturally left to wonder how this happens?
Hereʼs how: leaves, those awesome solar energy collectors are full of nutrients, and those leaves that are dropping to the ground right about now serve as wonderful mulch to the trees and shrubs that they once adorned. Besides insulating root systems from winter chill, fallen leaves actually temper both high and low temper extremes and also maintain a level of moisture, and the thicker the mulch, the better protection. Like all things once living, when the leaves come into contact with the soil (and its attendant micro-herds), they begin to decompose and release nutrients back into the soil, creating truly fertile ground for the root system to re-uptake when the Treeʼs winter slumber is over. Simply put, leaves are natureʼs blanket and are a valuable addition to your landscape.
So whether you are of the mind to work your micro-herds, or simply let them be, remember that compost, leaves and mulch are among the greatest gifts for an organic gardener.
Go forth and compost!
More information on composting and the benefits to your garden, the environment and your health is abundant here are a few to get you started:
- http://www.epa.gov/composting/basic.htm http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/conserve/tools/greenscapes/pubs/compost-guide.pdf
- Dig in to more resources: General Composting info
- DIY Compost Bins
- Kitchen Garden International