Composting for a garden that feeds itself
I don’t apply commercial fertilizers to my garden. My plants grow strong and sturdy without them, if their requirements match the soil I have.I admit that food crops forced to grow enormously in one short season, garden plants originating in very different climates than ours and container gardens do need supplements. My container plants and the occasional exotic annuals like petunias get small doses (much less than the label recommends) of Osmocote several times a year. This is a fertilizer in pellet form that supposedly dissolves gradually, releasing continuous small amounts of nutrients.All other plants that need an enriched diet get a helping of our compost. My deadheading, weeding, pruning and trimming generate lots of plant matter, mountains of it.Like cooking, making compost can be quite simple or very elaborate. If you pile your grass clippings in a heap and leave them there, eventually they will turn into compost. Add leaves and green plant matter and you will still eventually get compost. After a couple of years, the bottom of the pile will be a rich organic material. You don’t need to add starters or enzymes or anything else. To encourage the worms, microscopic wildlife and so on that do the work and speed up the process, water the pile and turn it three or four times a summer. If you do just this much, I congratulate you for reducing your personal footprint on the environment.My husband, Gerry, is the composter in our family. Fibrous plants, tree branches and tough old weeds are all grist for his mill. He runs them through the chipper-shredder in big batches. Sometimes he brings home a small load of horse manure to contribute to the pile. In the fall, he has been known to pilfer bags of leaves left out for the trash haulers. Kitchen scraps like pea pods, coffee grounds and vegetable peelings may be added, but don’t put in any food that has been cooked and never any meat or other animal products. Not only will it stink, it will attract animals. You don’t want to make a trip to your compost pile with a pail of corn husks and encounter a skunk, or worse yet, habituate a bear to frequenting your place.Our compost never smells and the year a mama bear and her two cubs wandered through the garden, they ignored it completely.Gerry throws all this raw material together in a big heap in a bin, which quickly becomes too hot for you to stick your hand into. The heat helps to kill weed seeds and pathogens. When it cools off, he turns it into another bin and waters it and the heat starts again. After the third heating cycle, it usually won’t get hot again. Then the worms, microbes and other very small critters can invade the pile and get to work. Gerry keeps turning and watering it. By fall, the process is nearly complete and by next spring the compost is ready to be distributed.The bins aren’t necessary: Gerry composted directly on the ground for years, but they do reduce surface area and allow a deeper pile, which is more efficient. There are plenty of books out there, if you want to know about gourmet compost piles.I have read that landscaping waste produces more than half the trash that goes into landfills. In Aspen, with all the construction waste, it may be less than half, but it is still a lot. The energy used to haul this to the dump and bury it and the land consumed in the process could be saved if everyone composted. The compost in turn would reduce the energy required to make and transport fertilizers, not to mention all the other stuff for sale as amendments.Gerry and I vie for this precious stuff. Whose garden needs it more? Should it be put on my garden for showier flowers, or should it be spread on the vegetable garden and around the berry bushes to increase our harvest?Sometimes I feel I should get the lion’s share because I collect so much of the raw material. On the other hand, I benefit as much as he does from the vegetables and berries, and Gerry is not only composter-in-chief but does all that heavy lifting to get the rough material up the hill and the finished product down the hill. I figure he has earned first dibs on the compost. Fortunately, he graciously and generously shares it with me.The beauty of homemade compost is that your garden feeds itself. Spread in handfuls around each plant – it’s fertilizer, soil improver and mulch all in one. Every plant eventually returns to the garden to nourish it. It’s a closed cycle. No wonder gardeners call compost black gold.Anna wrote this column with her husband, Gerry. Maggie the dog never finds anything good to eat in the compost pile. Comments would be most welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put “Anna’s Garden” in the e-mail subject line.
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