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GARDEN JOURNAL

Need compost? Here are 3 ways to make it without spending money on elaborate tumblers or bins

Compost screened.JPG

Screened compost is ready to add to garden soils or be used as a component of potting soil.

I recall a friend of mine getting upset whenever someone referred to their garden soil as “dirt”. Dirt, he claimed, is what we sweep under the rug. Soil, on the other hand, is the substance in which we grow plants. However, successful growth of plants requires that a soil be healthy, that is, has good texture and structure, is well-drained, nutrient rich, and consists of at least 5 percent organic matter.

The organic matter component is the least stable of factors and must be constantly replenished. In natural systems, such as forests and grasslands, this is accomplished via the cycles of growth and death of vegetation. On the other hand, as gardeners, we routinely pull up or rake up dead plant material. That’s not all bad since some of the plant material harbors pests and diseases. Nevertheless, unless there is a replacement of organic matter in soil, the quality of the soil, and therefore the successful growth of plants, is diminished.

So, how does one replace or sustain organic matter in garden soils? The answer is simple: add compost to the soil. Compost, often referred to as “gardener’s gold” or “black gold”, may be purchased, but is also something we can easily produce at home. To paraphrase an old saying: “compost happens”. It is nothing more than the decomposition of organic matter such as leaves, grass clippings, yard and garden wastes, kitchen scraps (plant materials only), certain animal manures, and even wood chips.

Compost bin wire cylinder.JPG

A simple compost bin can be made with a cylinder of sturdy wire fencing. A downspout, with drilled holes, is placed in the center of the bin to allow for more aeration of the decomposing material.

There are many ways for gardeners to make compost. You could spend money on elaborate compost tumblers and bins. However, there are far less expensive ways to create this valuable organic material. I use three different methods. The easiest is to simply pile up organic materials in a heap, perhaps hidden in a back corner of the yard or surrounded by a hedge if one finds a mound of rotting organic matter visually offensive. My pile is elongate, that is, fresh materials are steadily stacked on one end while at the other end is where the finished compost is located. That works well as long as you don’t extend the pile into the neighbor’s backyard. To hasten the rate of decomposition of materials, the pile should be overturned periodically in order to promote aerobic conditions, a necessity for the microbes involved in breaking down the organics. This is referred to as hot composting. Breakdown of organic matter will still occur without the turning process but at a slower rate, referred to as cold composting.

Another method is to build a simple bin. Mine is nothing more than a cylinder of metal fencing. The cylinder is about 36 inches in diameter. In the center of some cylinders, I’ll place a section of downspout or other tubular material in which 1/2-inch holes are drilled in order to allow for some aeration. The finished compost of this and the previous method are screened through 1/2-inch mesh hardware cloth to remove any undecomposed material.

The third method is called trench composting. This is done by digging a trench in a section of the vegetable garden. It is about a foot deep and 16 to 18 inches wide. Organic wastes are added to a depth of 6 inches and then covered with a thin layer of grass clippings as a nitrogen source. As the trench fills, the dug soil is returned to cover the organic material.

While composting may seem to be a difficult task, it can be a really easy process and yield a valuable material needed to convert dirt to soil.

Here’s the latest dirt on gardening tasks for this weekend:

  • Dig a 6- to 8-inch deep trench in which to plant seed potatoes. Small seed potatoes may be directly planted but larger ones can be cut into pieces about the size of a hen’s egg. If cutting a potato, be sure that each piece has at least one eye, the point from which a shoot will arise, and allow the pieces to cure for 2 or 3 days before planting. Set each seed potato, with an eye facing up (not yours, the potato’s), into the trench at a spacing of 12 inches and cover them with a couple inches of soil. As the shoots grow, mound soil up and around the stems each time stems grow 6 inches. As an alternative method, plant seed potatoes in a trench that is only a couple of inches deep and cover with soil. As the shoots develop, place straw around the stems. Harvesting will be much easier as no digging is required; simply pull aside the straw. The downside of this latter method is that voles may tunnel through the straw and dine on the spuds.
  • Start seedlings of vine crops, including cucumbers, summer and winter squash, and melons, indoors. Growing the seedlings in biodegradable pots will make transplanting at the end of this month much easier.
  • Cover leeks, onions, scallions, and shallots in the garden with row covers to protect them from Allium leaf miners. The adults of this very damaging pest are tiny flies and are now actively laying their eggs in the leaves of these crops.
  • To discourage insect pests, intersperse annual flowers among vegetable plants. This concept, known as plant apparency, makes it difficult for insects to locate their target hosts.
  • Snip off the spent flowers from spring flowering bulbs but do not cut back the foliage until the leaves have turned brown. In the meantime, scratch a general purpose fertilizer into the soil around the bulb plants.
  • Don’t neglect weeds in the garden. Competition from weeds will slow the growth of desirable plants.
  • Honor mom this weekend. Yes, you could give her a bouquet of flowers, but planting a tree or shrub in her honor will last much, much longer. In any case, give her a hug and thanks!

Garden Journal columnist Ron Kujawski began gardening at an early age on his family's onion farm in upstate New York. Although now retired, he spent most of his career teaching at the UMass Extension Service.

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