Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Compost: the second coming

People may argue why our present day is called Anno Domini (Did He come, did you miss it? Is He coming, do you look busy?). Whatever calendar you hang, you can't argue that it is spring and it really has arrived.  So for me, that means compost--not Christ.

Compost saves! 
Save garden cuttings, weeds, grass clippings, autumn leaves, veg and fruit peelings and other appropriate kitchen scraps ('forbidden fruit' is allowed), and compost will happen. Compost will save you from buying costly soil amendments that won't do the job as effectively.  Making compost saves all the natural resources from a garden and recycles them right back to the very plants that produced them. Pretty tight, huh?

Compost is coming!
Many methods abound for creating compost. Hot vs. cold piles, C:N ratios and the science of layering your "greens" and "browns". Do you pile or do you bin? Do you turn or do you spin? It shouldn't be overwhelming, but it definitely can be. Just remember that whatever method fits your time, energy, and compost needs, if you do it, it will come.

No compost, no peace--know compost know peace!
Compost is the great unifier. Compost comprises so many positive elements that together create a one-pot meal satisfying many a garden hunger. From building better soil structure, balancing pH, and increasing soil-moisture to inoculating soil with vital bacteria, fungi, and beneficial nematodes, compost redeems all previous garden sins. 

As an educator, I encourage gardeners to familiarize themselves with the organisms that make compost (and great soil) what it is. Reading Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web by Jeff Lowenfels is a great start for any gardener curious about what happens beneath their feet. Billions of beneficial fungi and bacteria break down organic matter above and below the soil level. Increasing these populations in the soil has tremendously positive effects. These beneficial organisms "guard" roots, fight pathogens, release plant-available nutrients, and can help extend a plant's root zone increasing the ability of said plant to retrieve water and nutrients up to 3 meters away! There is so much more to it, of course.  The specifics are fascinating, and the soil food web is really a phenomenal underworld.

We all have one: a favorite meal, drink, or snack, that is just sooooo tasty, you ingest in disbelief that it is so good for you. Mine is carrot-beet-orange-apple-celery-ginger juice straight from my juicer. Yum. That is just what compost is to your garden: guilt-free goodness for the garden's soul. 

So to get your soil out of garden hell, spread a 1/4-1/2" layer of compost on your beds in early spring. A smart plan is to get in on the ground before bulbs are really going.  Personally, I prefer to compost the gardens when the soil is warming up and those winterized organisms are now awake and ready to work. It's a great idea to gently scratch, or as Fergus says 'tickle' it into the garden soil to incorporate it. If you know you'll be planting spring annuals you'll be turning enough soil then. Some people prefer to get the composting done in the fall if they have the time. There is merit to this practice as well: decomposition will continue to take place until the deep freeze sets in. Through the winter and spring the soil will freeze and heave, and together with seasonal snow and rain, the compost will work it's way into the soil where its got to be. 

Whatever works, I say, just as long as it gets done.   

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