Home > > Gardening > Compost: the free gateway to super soil

Compost: the free gateway to super soil

Is it really worth starting your own compost pile? Aren’t you simply creating a smelly eyesore that’s just a glorified trash dump?

The answers are yes and no. YES, it is worth starting a compost pile, even a modest-sized one. And NO, your compost doesn’t have to be either smelly or an eyesore. With most of your must-do landscaping chores behind you for the season, this is the perfect time to get started on your compost pile. It’s a real investment!

If you already have your own composting system, no doubt you’re an enthusiastic advocate of the concept. But if you’ve been putting off the idea or haven’t really considered it, maybe I can answer a few questions here.

Why should I compost at all? Compost is a super soil amendment and it’s absolutely free. Adding compost to your soil will help aeration and water-management for both clay and sandy soils. Micro-organisms will feed on your compost and in turn provide nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous. Create a rich, dark soil for your plants and they’ll grow strong, healthy and robust. And did I mention it’s free?

What goes into a compost pile? Pretty much anything organic. Think of two different categories: browns and greens. Browns are carbon-rich materials and include dried leaves, wood chips, straw, etc. Greens are the nitrogen-rich materials such as kitchen scraps and grass clippings.

Does the mix matter? The ideal compost pile has a ratio of 25 to 1. Twenty-five parts brown to one part green, by weight. Too much carbon means the compost breaks down more slowly... and an over-abundance of nitrogen creates the “smelly” problem you want to avoid. But it’s not an exact science. Just remember that your goal is a lot more browns than greens.

Can I just dump my raked leaves on the pile? You could but you’ll get better (and faster) results if you mow over the leaves first to reduce them to much smaller pieces so they’ll decompose faster. If you have a lot of leaves, you could look into renting a chipper-shredder to make the job easier.

Any leaves I should avoid? Yes! Much as I love black walnut trees, I do not use the leaves in my compost as they can be toxic to other plants. I also avoid holly and live oak leaves that are tough and don’t break down easily.

What about grass clippings? A great source of nitrogen, but don’t toss on big clumps of wet grass because they will soon give off a sour smell. Tip: spread out grass clippings to dry until they begin to look a bit like straw before you add them to your compost. Again, be sure to add plenty of “browns” as well as the grass clippings. And don’t use any clippings that have recently been exposed to herbicide or pesticide.

Which kitchen scraps work best? Almost any kitchen leftovers will eventually break down and become organic matter, but it helps to be selective. Potato and carrot peelings, apple cores, banana skins and tea bags are ideal. Eggshells are very good too, but crush them up finely as they are slow to decompose. In fact, you’ll get better results if you take the time to chop up all your kitchen scraps before adding them to the pile. I choose not to add any meat or dairy products because they smell and attract critters. When adding fresh kitchen refuse to the pile, it’s a good idea to bury it under some older compost to discourage foraging wildlife.

What about manure? If you have access to manure, by all means add it! A couple of points: Only use manure from vegetarian animals such as cows, horses, goats and ducks. Allow the manure to age and dry slightly because adding fresh manure can kill off worms and other beneficial organisms. Avoid using manure from carnivores (such as dogs) as it can contain harmful pathogens.

If you have questions or comments about what you should or shouldn’t add to your compost, or if you want to know more about organic-based soil amendments and lawn care, drop me an e-mail.

In my next column, I’ll continue this important theme, and look at some easy ways to build an effective compost pile that will pay dividends all year ‘round.

The Plant Man is here to help. Send questions about trees, shrubs and landscaping to [email protected] For resources and additional information, or to subscribe to Steve’s free e-mailed newsletter, go to www.landsteward.org