Rare is the garden with perfect soil, so, to get maximum yield in our short seasons, we need to look at improving the soil we have. This requires a bit of effort, but the payoff is well worth it. Soil improvement should go on all the time.
Since there is so much raw material available during the growing season, I will start with composting, a relatively easy and inexpensive way to improve the soil.
What is Compost? It’s implied in the name—partially decomposed organic matter, mostly plants and the manures of plant-eating animals. Because its origin is plants, it contains the nutrients that our garden plants need to grow, in roughly the proportions needed. Basically, it is recycling plant materials.
What does compost do?
- Provides nutrition.
- Improves soil structure by separating soil particles, thus improving tilth and providing for better aeration.
- Increases the ability of the soil to retain moisture.
- Contributes to the health of plants.
- Moderates soil PH. (acidity vs. alkalinity).
- Encourages soil microorganisms and other beneficial soil inhabitants (e.g. earthworms).
How do you make good compost?
There are 2 ways to make compost:
Hot composting can be a little trickier because it requires:
a.) That dry matter (straw, leaves) and green matter (vegetable scraps, grass clippings, garden waste) be in the right (about 6 parts dry to 1 part green) proportions, and be chopped small.
b.) The right amount of moisture, and
c.) Frequent turning to introduce air into the pile for aerobic bacteria. If all these factors are in place, the compost heats up quickly, the temperature kills seeds and disease organisms, and the compost is ready in several weeks.
Cold composting is easier, since all the materials are piled up, and left until they almost look like soil. This can take several years since new materials are added over a long period of time. It is unwise to add weeds to this kind of pile, as the seeds do not die, and will be spread with the compost. We have 4 cold compost piles. We built adjoining pens about 4’x4’x4’ out of old lumber. When one pile is full, we move to the next compartment, then the next. By the time the 3rd is full, we are ready to use the first pile.
What can go into a compost pile?
Kitchen vegetable scraps, leaves and stalks of garden plants, straw, hay, manure from plant-eating animals, sod, grass clippings (in thin layers, not treated with weed killers), peat moss, coffee grounds and tea leaves, weeds that have not gone to seed, egg shells, crushed, wood ashes, chopped leaves (pile them up and run the lawn mower over them).
Don’t add too much of one thing at a time—layer them so there is variety throughout the pile.
A sprinkling of bone meal or alfalfa pellets will help to speed up the process. Thin layers of fresh or partially decomposed manure will serve the same purpose. Remember that most animal manures will contain viable weed seeds, except for sheep manure—sheep fully digest weed seeds.
What can’t go into a compost pile?
Roots of the cabbage family (root maggots), meat scraps or fat, cat/dog manure, inorganic material (metal or plastic), bones, branches or large pieces of wood, dairy products, diseased plants.
Does a compost pile smell? Attract flies?
Our piles smell very little as the materials decompose. We don’t notice many flies around our piles. If the pile smells putrid, like a stagnant slough, that is because anaerobic bacteria have colonized it, usually because of too much moisture and compaction of wet materials, eliminating oxygen. You can fork it over to let air in, and prevent this by adding layers of dry plant materials such as straw between green layers.
If I lived in town, and I wanted an open compost pile, I would do the Hot Composting method. Better yet, purchase a closed compost bin and use it according to directions—this compost is ready quickly.
How do you use compost when it is ready?
You just spread it on. Depending on how much you have, you can add 1” or 2” thickness around plants as mulch, you can spread it on the garden in fall or spring and till it in. Or, you can make Compost tea: Put about 1 ½ gallons of finished compost into a sack and tie the open end closed. Almost fill a 5-gal (20L) pail of water. Immerse the sack of compost. Cover the bucket and let it steep for 3-7 days. Pour the solution into a watering can or strain it and spray it on the plants. Spread the contents of the bag into the garden. You can make Manure tea the same way, but the manure has to be really well-rotted.
I’m sure glad that I planted some pots of mosquito plants this year. Remember, mosquito plants don’t keep mosquitoes away just by sitting there. Rub the leaves between your hands, and rub your hands all over your clothes and exposed skin.