Tuesday’s Tips — Composting

Let’s talk about the single most important element in gardening — soil. As you know, we’re strong proponents of using organic gardening methods and our guiding principle is this: feed the soil so the soil can feed the plants.

Feeding the soil rather than the plants is a critical distinction. Feeding plants with synthetic fertilizers is a quick fix, but it’s essentially fast food for your plants. If you want strong, beautiful plants that are healthy enough to fend off pests (so you don’t have to use pesticides), you’ll need to provide a nourishing environment.

Today’s tips are about compost which is hands down the best way to create beautiful, fertile soil. Compost helps sandy soils retain moisture and it loosens up clay soils. The bonus is that you’ll do good things for the environment by keeping loads of kitchen and garden waste out of the landfill. Here’s how to get started.

Tip #1 — Create your compost bin.

There are lots of detailed, sometimes complicated directions for composting usually having to do with creating hot compost. That’s great if you’re really dedicated, but if you’re a lazy gardener like me, you can do this very simply. Set four posts into the ground in a 3′ x 3′ square and string some 3′ high chicken wire around it and, presto, you have a compost bin.

Put your bin out of the way, but close enough to your house that you’ll use it. If it’s in the back 40 there’s probably not enough motivation in the world to get you to trek out there in the rain to empty your kitchen compost bucket (Gardener’s Supply has lots of choices). The bin does not need to be in the sun, partial shade is best. If you’re lucky enough to get a “hot” compost pile, the heat will be generated by decomposing waste. This method, called  “cold” composting will take a little longer to transform waste into “black gold”, the highly nutritious product of decomposition, but you’ll get there pretty painlessly.

You’ll need 50% greens (grass clippings, green leaves, yard trimmings, fruit and vegetable scraps and manures from herbivores — horses, cows, chickens and rabbits) and 50% browns (dried chopped up woody material, dried leaves, dried grass, straw, shredded newspaper, and sawdust) to get your compost cooking. Add them in alternating 4″ layers. Keep adding to it as you accumulate garden or kitchen waste. Turn the pile every few days and keep the whole mess damp (like a wrung out sponge).

There are things you should never put in your compost such as: manure from meat-eating animals, meat, bones, fats, dairy products, ashes, treated wood products (or sawdust from them), infected plant material, weeds seeds, and invasive plants that spread by runners like nut sedge or Bermuda grass.

Your compost is ready when it is dark, brown and crumbly like this:

Once you have compost, dig it into new beds or spread it out on your existing beds. It’ll filter down into the ground, feeding your plants and improving your soil.

Tip #2 — Put coffee grounds in your compost.

Coffee grounds make a great addition to your compost pile. Of course you should throw your own in there, along with tea bags, but did you know you can get loads of free grounds at your local Starbucks? Starbucks bags their used grounds for gardeners. Sometimes they have the bags in a basket near the door, but in other stores you’ll have to ask. Coffee grounds count as a “brown”.

Tip #3 — Add an activator.

Most compost activators don’t do much and they’re expensive, but some say that adding alfalfa meal will do wonders for your compost. MB uses it in her rose and iris tea so we know it’s great stuff. It adds nitrogen and protein to the pile and supposedly helps to accelerate decomposition. At the very least you’ll be adding something that plants love. We’re going to give it a try. Look for it at your local farm supply or garden center. You can order it online too.

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