Timing Gone Awry But Composting On Schedule

Time Change

Much of gardening is about timing — getting tomato plants in the ground early enough for a timely harvest, but not so early that transplants are killed by a late frost; checking that there’s enough time following harvest of early corn for a late planting of turnips, etc. So, when I began gardening, I read a lot and took lots of notes on what worked here in Zone 5, and eventually compiled everything into a neat table of when to do what.

I figured, with that table, that I was all set and would no longer have to respond to a gut impulse to plant peas during a freak warm spell in late February. Or to keep reading seed packets and counting back days to maturity to compute if there was still time, or it was too early, to plant a late season crop of endive.

Not so! In the few years I have gardened, which, though decades, is infinitesimal in geologic time, the climate has changed enough for me to have to shift those dates I so carefully figured out. No longer must I wait until the end of May to sow okra, squash, and other vegetables; the ground warms sufficiently to induce them to sprout a couple of weeks earlier now. No longer does a hard freeze strike tomato vines dead by the end of September. As I write, it’s the end of October and last night the first frost — a light frost — crept into the garden; later today, though, I’ll be picking ripe Sungold tomatoes.

Some perennial plants that, in the past, usually died back to the ground each winter, then resprouted in spring, no longer die back. Yellow groove bamboo, for instance. Nowadays their leaves stay green through most winters, which translates to taller and thicker canes. Crocosmia corms would hardly flower in years past; nowadays I don’t bother to dig up the corms, which flower and spread prolifically.

Taking Care of My Little Pets

Some things, gardenwise, are timeless or, at least, not time sensitive. The changing daylength throughout the year, for instance. And composting.Compost bins

Although I feed my compost “pets,” that is, all the micro- and macroorganisms living and working the compost pile, all season long, this time of years those pets have a veritable banquet. In addition to the usual trimmings and scraps from the kitchen, beds are being cleared of corn, beans, okra, cucumbers, and all those other summer vegetables that are petering out.

I’m also having a lot of fun weeding. Yes, fun. Yes, weeding. (You might wonder why the author of the book Weedless Gardening has weeds. I grow a lot of fruit trees, shrubs, and vines, and some flowers, in addition to vegetables. I have too much garden. I can’t help myself. But everything is Weed-less.)

The ground has enough moisture in it so weeds are easily pulled. On my knees, I pull at a clump of Creeping Charlie, and creeping vines extending for 2 feet in all directions move up and out of the ground. I grab a clump of quackgrass and, if I lift carefully, a couple of feet of its creeping rhizome that attempts to extend its reach releases from the ground.

Quackgrass with runner

All this goes into the compost pile along with some horse manure and bedding, some hay I scythe from my field, and occasional sprinklings of soil and dolomitic limestone. As I layer these materials, I pay attention to their ratios of carbon and nitrogen, the two main feedstuffs of my compost pets. Old plants are relatively richer in carbon, young ones in nitrogen. Manure is rich in nitrogen, the bedding (wood shavings, which is old plants) in carbon. Too much carbon, and decomposition is sluggish. Too much nitrogen, and the pile gets smelly.

I also consider how fast ingredients might decompose. Wood shavings, for instance, are high in lignin, which slows decomposition no matter what their ratio of carbon to nitrogen.

The Little Guys Are (Usually) Thirsty

Two things that often slow composting are heat loss and insufficient moisture. Small compost piles lose too much heat; the critical mass for good heat retention is about a cubic yard. The bins into which I pile ingredients insulate the edges to further retain heat.

A lot of water is needed to seep way down into a pile. Rather than keep trying my patience holding a hose wand, a couple of years ago I purchased a small sprinkler and attached it to some plastic pipe so it fit neatly on top of my compost pile. A pressure regulator (usually used for drip irrigation systems) keeps incoming pressure constant so I could adjust an inline valve to make the spray consistently reach just to the edge of the pile. Twenty to thirty minutes gives my compost pets a good drink.Compost sprinkler

A long-stemmed compost thermometer is my final check that all is well. The piles typically reach 150°F. Compost piles don’t need to get that hot; more time composting also does the trick. Any pile of organic materials eventually becomes compost..



    The talk of the town these days is the weather. In this town, at least, and other towns throughout the Northeast. After a relatively snowless winter punctuated with warm spells, spring knocked early at winter’s door and was let in. Even I, who try to be guided by the calendar rather than my gut, succumbed, planting peas a full two weeks earlier than my usual date of April 1st. Flowering trees and bushes — and more importantly, those whose flowers later morph into luscious fruits — similarly fell prey to spring weather’s apparent arrival.
    As I write, snowflakes tumble down from a gray sky, adding to the three inches of snow already piled onto spring green grass. Temperatures tonight and tomorrow night are predicted to drop near 20 degrees F. We’ve all been duped!!

Nanking cherry flowers with snow

Nanking cherry flowers with snow

    I’m most concerned, and least able to do anything about, weather’s effect on my fruit trees and bushes. Nanking cherries were in full bloom a few days ago, a full two weeks earlier than average. Asian pear flower buds look about to pop open, blueberry buds have fattened in preparation for opening , and black currants and gooseberries have almost fully leafed out.
    Options available to commercial orchards are not feasible in backyards. Such as sprinkling plants with water so that the heat of fusion released as water freezes keeps buds warm; you can’t stop sprinkling until weather warms enough to melt all ice. On clear, cold nights, heavier, cold air sinks but can be warmed by mixing in warm air from higher up. Not many backyard gardeners have wind machines or are willing to have a helicopter hover overhead all night pushing down warmer air.
    What we backyard growers can do that orchardists cannot, feasibly, is to snug a few small plants — bushes and dwarf trees — beneath a blanket. (Except that I have a lot more than a few small fruit plants.) That’s about it. Besides keeping fingers crossed and hoping for the best.

Winter Cold!!

Peach flower buds, dead

Peach flower buds, dead

   Peaches are famous for their early blossoming, so I was especially worried for them. My peach tree spent its first few years in a large pot which could be conveniently lugged into the garage whenever cold weather threatened its blossoms.
    No need to worry this year. I checked the fat, flower buds, and they are already dead. Winter’s cold and/or fluctuating temperatures evidently had already done them in.

(Too) Early Peas

    My early planted peas took advantage of the last couple of weeks of balmy weather and sprouted quickly. Temperatures near 20° will surely freeze those sprouts. They might resprout from protected buds below ground, or not.
    I nudged ol’ man winter aside and created a warmer microclimate over the sprouts by putting up metal hoops covered with row covers over them. They may have been better off with the blanket of snow tucked all around them. Then again, the snow cover might settle too much, or blow away.
    In a few days, I’ll see how the peas fared. Worst case scenario: replant.

Not Climate Change

    “Climate change” is the battle cry for this whacky weather. But is it really so whacky?
    As far as the cold, the average date for the last killing frost of spring in my garden is around the third week in May. The key word here is “average.” Looking at a tabulation of percent chance of cold temperatures on various spring dates (, on average there’s a 50% chance of the thermometer hitting 24° on April 14th around here, a 10% chance on April 27th.

Peas under tunnels & snow

Peas under tunnels & snow

    “Frost” means 32°F. For that magic 32°, which is lethal to tomato and pepper seedlings but of no consequence to cabbage and onion transplants, there’s a 50% chance of that temperature on May 13th, even a 10% chance on May 27th.
    Of course, temperatures in my (or your) garden could be a few degrees different from those at nearby weather stations, which supply those averages. Still, looking back at my own records, while last year Nanking cherries blossomed here on May 2nd in 1999, they blossomed on April 18th in 2004, on April 26th in 2012, and on March 29th in 2015.
    So it seems like whacky weather is the norm. Except this year, it does still seem that the early warming was slightly earlier, and the later cold — 15°F, now, the day after the snowfall — more intense. Then again, Nanking cherries have never failed me.