Your Pet Needs:

As the bumper sticker on my truck reads, “COMPOST HAPPENS.” Even so, problems sometimes arise along the way.Compost happens bumper sticker

Is your main complaint that your compost “happens,” but too slowly. I like to picture my compost pile as a pet, except this pet is made up of many different kinds of macro- and microorganisms, and the population changes over time. Like other pets, my compost pet and your compost pet need food, air, and water.

Compost piles work quickest when their two most important foodstuffs — nitrogen and carbon — are in balance. (All this, by the way, also applies to us humans; our nitrogen comes mostly from proteins, and our carbon comes mostly from carbohydrates.) Old, usually brown and dry plant materials, such as autumn leaves, straw, hay, and sawdust, are the carbon-rich foods for a compost pile. Carbon-rich compost foodThe older the plant material, the richer it is in carbon. Nitrogen-rich materials include young, green plant parts, such as tomato stalks, vegetable waste from the kitchen, and grass clippings, as well as manures.Nitrogen-rich compost food

Nitrogen fertilizers are concentrated sources of nitrogen. They commonly are the active ingredients of commercially available compost “activators.” “Activator” has a nice ring to it, but it is overpriced, unnecessary, candy for any compost. Sometimes they also contain microorganisms, also unnecessary.

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Spring Readiness

  I’m frantically getting ready for spring. A large portion of that readying means making compost. Compost piles assembled now, while temperatures are still relatively warm, have plenty of time to heat up right to their edges, quickly cooking and killing most resident weed seeds, pests, and diseases.
My compost binsI like to think of my compost pile as a pet (really, many pets, the population of which changes over time as the compost ripens) that needs, as do our ducks, dogs and cat, food, water, and air. Today I’ll feeding my pet — my compost pet — corn stalks, lettuce plants that have gone to seed, rotten tomatoes and peppers, and other garden refuse. Plenty of organic materials are available to feed compost piles this time of year.

  In case you’re wondering, no, I’m not taking a close look at each leaf, stalk, and fruit to make sure it’s free of pests before getting tossed on the growing pile, as is suggested by some people. Look closely enough, and you’d find that just about everything would have some hostile organism on it. But given some combination of time and heat, a well-fed compost pile will take care of such potential problems.
Compost, in the makingJoseph Jenkins, in his excellent (and fun-to-read) book, The Humanure Handbook, quotes research showing complete destruction of human pathogens in humanure composts that reach 145°F for one hour, 122°F for one day, or 109° F for one week. The same should be true for plant pathogens and pests. For decades, I’ve tossed everything and anything into my compost piles and never noticed any carry over of pest or disease problems.

  Heat and time also do in weed seeds. Survival depends on the kind of weed: Research shows that a couple of weeks at 114°F kills pigweed seeds, while only about a week at that temperature kills seeds of tomatoes, peppers and their other kin in the nightshade family. Generally temperatures of 131°F for a couple of weeks kills most weed seeds.

  Heat and time aren’t the only threats faced by pathogens, pests, and weed seeds in the innards of my compost piles. In addition to heat, various antagonistic organisms — including friendly (to us) bacteria, fungi, and nematodes — stand ready to inhibit their growth or gobble them up.
Compost thermometerThis time of year, my compost piles dial the heat up to around 140°F, and hold that temperature for a couple of weeks, or more, before slowly cooling down.

Weedy Revenge

  Speaking of weeds, they also make excellent food for my compost pet. What sweet revenge I get tossing mugwort, creeping Charlie, and woodsorrel onto a growing compost pile and then get them back transmuted as dark, rich compost.

  Other organic materials that go into my compost piles are a mix of goldenrod, bee balm, grasses, yarrow, and whatever else is growing in my south field. I cut parts of it with a scythe, let the scythings wilt for a day, then rake and pitchfork them up.
Haystacks and compost pilesAlso on the menu is some horse manure from a nearby stable, which I like mostly for the wood shavings that provide bedding for the horses. The manure itself furnishes nitrogen, which compost pets need for a balanced diet — 20 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen but no need to be overly exacting because it all balances out in the finished compost. Lacking manure, soybean meal is another nitrogen-rich feed, as are grass clippings and kitchen waste.
Organic materials feed compost pile.Feeding a variety of compost foods provides a smorgasbord of macro- and micronutrients to the composting organisms and, hence, to my plants. Every few inches I also sprinkle on some soil, to help absorb nutrients and odors, and some ground limestone, to lower acidity of our naturally increasingly acidic soils, and to improve the texture of the finished compost.

The Annual Cycle of Compost Here

  Compost made this time of year typically gets turned next spring, then, later in the growing season, pitchforked into the garden cart for spreading on vegetable beds. 

Turning compost

A one-inch depth of ripened compost supplies all that bed needs to grow intensively planted vegetables there for the whole growing season.Spreading compostIt was too late to plant a late vegetable crop in the bed I just cleared of old corn stalks, so I blanketed that bed an inch deep in compost. The same goes for a bed in which grew an early planting of zucchini.

  Any beds that get cleared before the end of this month will get, before I lay down that blanket of compost, a dense sprinkling of oat seeds. The seeds will germinate and the seedlings will thrive in the cool weather of autumn and early winter.

Cover crop, 3 beds with cabbage

This “cover crop,” as it is called, protects the soil surface from pounding rain and insulates the lower layers. The oat roots latch onto nutrients that might otherwise wash down through the soil. And as the roots grow, they nudge soil particles this way and that, giving the ground a nice, crumbly structure that garden plants like so well.

  Beds cleared after October 1st get only compost, no oats, which is almost as good. In all honesty, I’ve never noted any difference in the soil or in vegetable plant growth from using compost alone as opposed to compost plus a cover crop. That much compost, year after year, probably way overshadows the effect of a cover crop. The green cover does look nice going into winter, though.

(I deal more in-depth with composting, using compost, and cover crops in my book Weedless Gardening.)Oat cover crop

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..