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Weekly Gardening Tips: Compost

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By Bob Beyfuss

For Capital Region Independent Media

Headshot of a man named Bob Beyfuss.

The fall leaf colors are just past peak in the northern Catskills, but approaching their peak color south of Kingston.

I am driving to Tennessee this week and looking forward to seeing the Smoky Mountains as they put on their own show. The Appalachian region is far more diverse in numbers of tree and shrub species than we are, so this should be an interesting and beautiful road trip. 

Naturalist John Burroughs wrote, “How beautifully leaves grow old. How full of light and color are their last days.”

I have a friend who, like me, is a snowbird and he has already returned to Florida for reasons I cannot fathom. The Gulf Coast of Florida is warm, green and sunny, but there are no hillsides of sugar maples or red oak to delight our senses!

Last fall, at about this time, someone from the lawn-hating pollinator police got on my case for suggesting that homeowners simply mow the fallen leaves, to prevent them from suffocating the lawn. It seems beneficial insects thrive under the decaying leaves all winter, but the shredded leaves also feed the lawn, as they quickly decompose, releasing nutrients that might otherwise be added with bags of chemical fertilizer in the spring.

Leaving the lawn clippings in place after each mowing can add as much as ten pounds of 10-10-10 nitrogen fertilizer, per one thousand square feet, per season. A major concern when using chemical fertilizers is the chance they may simply wash away if we get a heavy rain. Runoff from these fertilizers is a serious source of pollution for bodies of water downhill, ranging from streams and creeks to ponds and lakes. Shredded leaves don’t contribute to this problem at all.

The fallen leaves may also be raked up and used to start a compost pile that can provide some “black gold” next year at this time. Compost piles are a sort of “vegetable lasagna,” since they are made of alternating layers of different textured plant materials.

Typically, a thin layer of coarse plant material, such as thin, woody twigs, is covered with a thicker layer of leaves, which may be covered with a layer of grass clippings and covered with spent vegetable garden refuse. Toss in a handful or two of garden soil and repeat the process over and over, until the pile is as much as 5 feet high.

There is no need to add any sort of “compost activator” to speed up the process. There are more than enough microbes in a handful of garden soil to ensure that decomposition will proceed.

Oak leaves provide a challenge though, as they tend to mat down and do not decompose as readily as maple or other tree species. If possible, shred the oak leaves with your lawnmower and only use thin layers of them.

Ideally, in a couple of weeks, the pile will heat up to a steamy temperature of 160 degrees, which is hot enough to pasteurize the compost. This should kill most pathogens and weed seeds and you should end up with a black, sweet-smelling material, with the texture of fine garden soil. If the compost pile should start to smell like ammonia, this means that it needs to be turned, to aerate the contents.

The pile will shrink by as much as two-thirds over the next 12 months. By next fall, it should be ready to apply to your gardens, after sifting it through a coarse mesh screen, like chicken wire.  Some organic materials, such as woody twigs, take much longer to decompose than others so the “finished” compost needs to be sifted from the materials not fully broken down.

You can add fresh vegetable kitchen scraps such as potato or cucumber peels, banana skins (not citrus peels), corn husks (not corn cobs), or even cooked leftover vegetables, but don’t add any pasta, breads bones or meat. These foods may attract rats or bears to your backyard. Egg shells also take years to break down and should not be used.  

Before you even begin this process, make sure your local municipality allows home composting. Some communities frown on backyard compost piles for fear of attracting vermin. 

If you like gadgets — and what gardener does not like garden gadgets — you can buy a compost tumbler bin that houses the compost. By tumbling the contents, aeration is enhanced and the process proceeds more rapidly.

You don’t need to add any lime or gypsum to adjust the pH either. Even acidic plant materials, such as pine needles, seem to break down into compost that has a pH of near 7, which is neutral. The trick to successful composting is using the smallest particle sizes possible, to allow more surface area for the microbes to feed on.  

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