COMPOSTING YOUR WAY TO A BETTER GARDEN
By: Emily Shirley, Advanced Master Gardener
Soil is the most precious resource in your garden. Some have well-tended soil (from previous owners), while others, particularly those moving into new homes, inherit a rubble-filled mass. However, any soil can be improved through time and effort. For example, when the Master Gardeners began gardening in the Demonstration Garden a few years back, we were given use of the property that was formerly an old rodeo arena. It was very compacted, and after just a few inches we hit red clay that had been hauled in for years and driven over with tractors. By the time we finished amending the soil we were growing beautiful plants – vegetables and ornamentals.
If you have been around the gardening world very long, you have heard the terms “black gold”. What we are referring to is composted material that is very precious in terms of gardening use – or compost. Composting is the natural process that turns raw organic ingredients into humus – that earthy, dark crumbly, fully decomposed end product. If you regard your soil as a living entity, you will see that essential plant nutrients are cycled by a microscopic army of inhabitants and larger worms, insects and grubs. All these creatures need air, moisture and food. Using manure, garden compost and other sources of organic matter is the key to sustaining this soil life and keeping the soil healthy.
It is always good to start by working with what you have – compost what your yard produces first, and import materials only when they are convenient and of special value to your composting. Compostable materials from your kitchen, such as fruit and vegetable scraps, plus garden materials can easily be reused to cycle their nutrient value, carbon and nitrogen back into the soil to grow more food or plants.
To avoid waste from what you do not use in the kitchen, don’t throw it in the garbage, compost it! Once you start saving your food scraps from the kitchen two things will happen. You will simply be amazed at how much you have been throwing in the garbage that could have been used for composting. And, you will never go back to throwing these things in the garbage again because you will soon realize how valuable these materials are for your gardening. Most landscapes produce plenty of fallen leaves, grass clippings, and withered plants to toss in there.
This is a very simple process. You need something for collecting your kitchen food waste to get started. You can spend a lot of money for products that are sold for this purpose, or you can make it simple by having a simple five-gallon bucket with a lid, just outside your kitchen. As you prepare food or clean out the refrigerator, just toss things into a small container and each evening empty that container into your larger bucket just outside the kitchen door. Once you have enough in the outside container to throw out, you take the contents from your food scrap container to a compost pile. You can even get creative and even make it even easier by having some trenches dug outdoors in an area you plan on gardening in at a later date and bury your food scraps in those. Now, just let things sit in your compost pile a while and decompose and when it is ready, start using it.
So how do you know when your compost is ready to use for planting projects?
To evaluate your compost to determine if it is ready you can get very complicated, (that science thing again) or you can just use what you have – your eyes, nose and hands – to determine if it’s ready. Visual inspection will reveal even color and consistency with a sprinkling of still-identifiable, undecomposed items, such as a peach pit or chunks of corn cob. Your nose will detect an inoffensive, earthy smell with no sharp or sour odors. To the touch, your finished compost will feel cool (no apparent heating), moist, and crumbly. Once your compost meets these standards, let a few lettuce (or other) seeds pass final judgement. Combine compost with an equal amount of potting soil and plant seeds in the mixture. Sow the same kind of seeds in plain potting soil at the same time, and compare the progress of each planting. If the seeds grow equally well in both, your compost is ready to roll; slower growth in the compost mixture means your compost needs more time to mature before you use it in planting projects.
- Composting is not fast – you have to be patient and give it time. Slow compost is good compost.
- Place a thick layer of newspaper (not the slick colored sheets) at the base of a curing compost pile to deter invasive tree roots.
- Inadequate moisture is one of the most common reasons for compost to fail to make good progress. Compost microorganisms need moisture. You have to give your pile some moisture during these Louisiana hot days. It is important to moisten ingredients as you add them to your pile, and to replenish moisture as you turn or aerate compost.
- In an open heap, you don’t have to aerate, because the heap has plenty of exposed surface area, and will make its own air pockets as the materials shrink and turn into compost. (Note: I have a very large compost pile and I just use the tractor front-end loader to move it around occasionally.)
- After a year or two of using compost In the garden every chance you get, you will discover a new pleasure in gardening. You will notice that you can pull weeds more easily.
- It is a good idea to only use your composting pail for just composting. Don’t contaminate it with other things, for example, using your bucket to pick up behind the dog in the yard.
So how do you then actually use this compost once it is decomposed and ready?
- Treat every plant you grow to some form of compost.
- Blanket beds as you renovate them between plantings.
- Amend planting holes, or mix your best batches into homemade potting soil.
- Use rough-textured, partially decomposed compost as mulch.
- You can use it as a soil conditioner for all type of plants.
- You can use your compose to mix with potting mix that you already have.
- You can use it as a slow release fertilizer, gradually feeding plants over a long period of time.
- You can use it for mulch for pots and gardens to protect plant roots from the sun and wind and to prevent erosion and reduce soil diseases.
- (composting – continued)
- You can use compost as a top dressing for lawns, to add nutrients and fill in gaps to encourage healthier grass roots and thatch.
- Use it as an amendment to prove sandy and clay soil structure by binding soil particles together – helping aerate, retain moisture and nutrients.
- Make a liquid “compost tea” fertilizer.
- Compost mixed into the soil between plantings is the best way to keep the soil from becoming exhausted.
- When you are ready to plant, mix in the compost along with organic fertilizer sufficient to meet the needs of the crop, and you are good to go.