The lone voice of horticultural reason

Basics To Composting Part II

10-8-1998 — As was discussed in last week’s column, adding compost to your garden beds is essential if your goal is the most beautiful flowers and robust vegetables possible. Fall is the perfect time to start composting, so let’s get to it.

Last week’s column discussed construction materials, sizes and placement for bins, and the fact that two bins are better than one.

Some tip sheets recommend placing a small brush pile on the floor of your bin to start. I can assure you, you’ll only try this once. All it did for me was cause me to lose my best, finest compost down into the brush pile. The brush also caught on my pitchfork anytime I was turning, and later attempting to remove, the finished product. After the first year I hauled the brush out of there, except for the thick, broken sticks that ultimately wound up in my finished compost and had to be plucked out by hand.

The purpose of the brush pile ruse is to increase ventilation to the bottom and center of the pile as it gets higher, which is an admirable pursuit. Without adequate air, the pile never gets very hot. This is the reason for “turning” the pile with a pitchfork. But you need not do even that. Buy a compost turner instead, which is a t-handled shaft with two small wings at the pointed tip. Plunge the tool into your pile, twist it clockwise, and rip it back out. When you twist, the wings open up, sometimes, and enable you to rip a gaping hole up through the compost as you extricate. Any time your compost pile has cooled, i.e. ceased the composting process, take five minutes and perforate your pile-in-progress with this tool on about a one-foot grid, and the pile should have all the ventilation it needs. They’re cheap and they work.

The mainstay materials for any compost pile are grass clippings and leaves. I bag my grass clippings the first three or four times I mow in the spring, and use them as the basis for a new pile. Sun-dry the clippings for about four days first, however, by dumping them next to your bins and spreading them out to a depth of six inches. Don’t waste your money on commercial compost-helpers. A handful of regular grass fertilizer three or four times during the course of building the pile is all you need to stimulate the composting process.

Water is the big key to successfully making compost. It is very hard to over-water a compost pile. I water the pile deeply with the hose anytime it hasn’t rained for a few weeks or I’ve collected enough material to add a layer a foot or so high. If you use a compost turner once a month from May to October and find it still takes longer than one year to create finished compost, your pile is not being kept wet enough.

As summer progresses I toss weeds, gutter debris, spent annuals, deadheads, fruit and vegetable kitchen scraps, and any perennial that’s disappointed me or made me mad, onto the pile. Don’t add diseased plants or weeds that have gone to seed. Don’t worry about layering-I have weeks when I’m only tossing a few things on the pile and days when I’ve got a ton of stuff-and you don’t need to know about “greens vs. browns.” If you keep the pile moist, keep it aerated and add fertilizer a few times a summer you’ll make compost as well as the next person.

I start bagging grass clippings again in September; right now is the best time to bag, because the mixture your mower creates is a combination of shredded grass and leaves, which can go directly onto the pile without drying. In fact, this fall grass and leaf combination is the reason I eventually started a third bin. If you have a large yard and mature trees, you’ll have ample leaves for three. The first year, fill bin number three in the in the fall, toss it to number two in the spring and fill three again. Late summer toss the stuff from number two into number one, the stuff from three into two, then fill three in the fall. After one year you’ll have created a factory that provides all the compost you need, anytime you need it.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener