Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
October, 2011
Regional Report

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Compost annual flowers, stems and all, when their season ends.

Start Composting

Everyone tells you to compost, but there is so much information that it can be daunting to figure out what to do. Here are steps to get you started.

Take Baby Steps
Composting works on a simple principle. Plant-based material rots naturally and ultimately returns to wonderful brown stuff of unrecognizable origin known as compost. The process is unstoppable, but the pace of this decomposition and the nature of the end product depend on you.

Truth is, you need only pile up leaves and leave them be to make compost. I usually have one big pile of mostly oak leaves going all the time. After all the leaves are raked, the pile is about the size of a small car. I do not turn it nor add anything to it, and in about a year it is less than half that. I dig from the bottom and the material I retrieve is a perfect amendment to clay soil and potting mixes.

Make space for your leaves instead of bagging and trashing them this year. With no more effort than making a pile, perhaps smaller than mine and faster to rot, you can have the first product of rot, called leaf mold, in weeks and true compost in just months.

Speed It Up
To make compost happen faster, the pile needs more oxygen. To aerate in this case means to physically turn the pile so it is exposed to open air. The idea is to lift sections and turn them over into the empty space or bin next to the pile. A hay-turning fork is ideal, but choose a pitchfork, shovel, or snow scraper if it suits you and your back. This is not a contest to see how much you can lift at once. It is much more effective to move grocery-bag sized chunks, starting at the top so the pile is inverted by turning.

The more often you turn, up to once a week, the faster the process will go. If the pile gets either very dry or soggy wet, decomposition slows dramatically. Water the pile occasionally if needed or turn more frequently to keep the good rot going in extreme conditions. Research and practice reveal that piles roughly 3 feet by 3 feet are most efficient, and I have broken my huge pile into smaller sections at times, usually in very wet weather. Many gardeners agree that if only leaves are composted, you should add a nitrogen fertilizer such as cottonseed meal or a compost starter product to kick off the process and speed it up.

Make Better Compost
To further improve the quality of plain brown compost, you need to add green matter. The resulting analysis will reflect its components; i.e. higher levels of elemental nutrients. Lawn clippings, spent annuals, tender prunings, and kitchen waste are most popular, including eggshells and coffee grinds. A good mix of materials is one part green to three parts brown, mixed well for best results.

Unless you are a composting wizard, it is wise to leave out pest-ravaged materials, noxious weeds, and any plants that have been treated with herbicides. Woody prunings must be shredded or they will greatly slow the decomposition. Kitchen waste is almost anything from celery stubs and carrot tops to citrus and potato peels, but does not include meat or bones. It most certainly does not include dog or kitty poop or litter. Chop, shred, or blend up the kitchen waste before adding to the compost and bury it within the pile to deter raccoons in search of a banana peel snack. Rinse eggshells for the same reason. Use a trowel or stick to poke a hole into the pile to secrete and blend the additions.

The compost process is simpler to put to work than you might think, and the result is worth more than gold to gardeners for its soil-building qualities and nutrient value. Serious organic gardeners add particular components to the pile to further strengthen its analysis and use nothing else to successfully fertilize their gardens. Think about the value of leaf mold and compost to your garden and your pocketbook, and get started now.

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