Are you thinking about what you’re going to do with all the leaves that will be falling very soon? Why not use them to add to your existing compost pile, or start a new one to add to your garden next spring. Composting is nature’s oldest form of recycling and actually uses natural bacteria and fungi to break down organic matter into usable humates for your garden. Humates result from the breakdown of organic compounds, which stay in your soil for years and are very important in holding onto nutrients for your plants to use. The process takes three to 12 months depending on how you make your pile, turn your pile, and tend to your pile.
The best combination for a starting recipe is two or three parts brown (leaves, chipped up branches or wood chips) and one-part green (grass clippings, food scraps, but no meat or dairy). Blend these ingredients into a stack at least three feet tall to get a good amount of heat generated. The mixture should be damp but not soaking wet. If you start with extremely dry leaves, consider adding a small amount of water. You can also compost only leaves, however without the greens the lack of nitrogen means it will take longer.
I bag my grass clippings and leaves together each fall, which helps break down the leaves and create more surface area so that when I empty the bag it’s already a blended mixture that’s nearly perfect. From there add small amounts of food waste each week like lettuce, banana peels, fruit and other expired veggies.
There are a lot of commercial compost bins on the market. You can make your own compost bin by using three wooden pallets nailed together end to end forming a U-shaped container with an open top. This allows you to constantly turn the pile from the open end with a pitchfork or shovel as you continue to add material each week. The pallets or commercial compost bins also allow air to get to the compost which is very much needed for proper composting.
How do you know when compost is completed? Finished compost is brownish black in color and you will find it hard to recognize any of the original ingredients. It is also nice and crumbly, which is one of the characteristics that helps clay soils break up and sandy soils better retain water.
Turn the pile at least once a week or twice a month throughout the winter and watch to see the steam come out of the pile! The larger the pile the more heat will be generated and the faster the composting process will go.
Use the compost in the spring by adding a one-inch layer to your planting areas and mixing into the soil to a depth of five inches with a spade or tiller. Healthy compost has more microorganisms in a teaspoon than we have people on the planet! It is truly remarkable stuff for your garden. Compared to other bagged products that don’t have a microorganism content, you’ll notice a huge difference in the growth and health of your plants.
Proper composting kills weed seeds, insect eggs, and fungi from plant diseases. It’s nature’s way of breaking the cycles of these pests. In order to properly kill weed seeds, etc., the temperature of the compost pile should reach 130°F for at least 15 days. Turning the pile at least three times while hot will help kill weed seeds by rotating the edges to the center on each turn. When complete, your compost should be weed seed free, which also helps reduce the number of weeds in your garden.
By Natalie Carmolli, Proven Winners® ColorChoice® shrubs
Photographs courtesy of Proven Winners® ColorChoice® shrubs
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