Making Garden Gold At Home
Over the past couple of years, the pandemic kept many people closer to home than usual, and many of them found gardening to be a comfort in these stressful times. That said, many of them also found gardening to be frustrating and mysterious, with uneven results despite hard work. Some of those wobbly returns on the investment of time and effort were due to inexperience, but much was also due to unreliable weather, which disrupted normal timing from native plant bloom times to ripening (or not) tomatoes. Here in the maritime Northwest, the past few years were cooler than usual, making it difficult to get gratifying crops of heat lovers, so first time tomato growers were Not Happy. On the other hand, kale and greens were very productive, but they’re not glamor crops, so that didn’t make up for the iffy tomatoes.
Folks who hadn’t paid much attention to such seasonal swings before were baffled, asking for tips to improve their gardening “luck”. There is definitely an element of luck in garden successes, but bountiful gardens owe at least as much to the gardener’s active attention and activities. Our primary task in gardens of any age and stage is to make sure our soil is kept well fed. Newbie gardener are often surprised to learn that soil needs feeding. Fertilizer companies advertise well, but it’s harder to find accurate information about feeding the soil and letting soil feed our plants. Soil food is what makes compost the single most important ingredient in any recipe for garden success. Water is crucial as well, but if our soil is well fed and frequently amended, it will retain soil moisture well while feeding plant roots and allowing roots adequate oxygen flow.
Homemade Compost Or Store Bought?
I’m often asked if all I can talk about is compost, which makes me chuckle. Of course not, but because it’s so important, it does come up a lot. I live on land that was dense forest not that long ago, and the land remembers what people have forgotten. Around here, soil needs help to be able to support food crops rather than native trees and understory plants, and compost is key to making that happen. I also get asked a lot about whether homemade compost is the equivalent of commercial products. As a rule, compost’s nutritive quality increases with the production method but also reflects the variety of materials it incorporates. Commercial compost may include a range of ingredients from yard waste bins to refuse from log processing and fisheries. Since raw materials from many sources often contain pesticides and weed seeds, the best commercial facilities compost at very high temperatures. Commercial producers also use more testing (hopefully) for pesticide residues, and can take advantage of more scientific techniques than most home gardeners, but homemade composts can have other advantages.
If our homemade compost contains fewer ingredients, we know exactly what they are. By using our own pesticide-free yard and garden wastes, and by weeding out pests before they go to seed, we avoid two big issues. If we can generate enough heat in our heap, any remaining weed seeds get cooked. By tending our heap, we can transform the humblest garden waste into nurturing garden gold. That involves adjusting the mix of wet and dry materials to speed up the rotting process, turning the heap every month to let in air and keep the materials heated up, and adding water as needed to keep things moist but not soggy. If we do all that, we can make compost to rival commercial products. Too much work? Slackers rejoice: Almost any homemade compost will be as good or better than bagged products that have been sitting on a pallet for months.
To improve home compost, grow many kinds of plants. It’s a good way to appease garden lust, and it’s a fine excuse for making plant purchases above requirement. For even more diversity, harvest grass clippings and fallen leaves from neighbors who don’t compost. However, avoid their grass clippings if your neighbors uses pesticides or employs a lawn service that treats lawns with fertilizer/pesticide mixes. Even a basic blend of lawn mowings and fallen leaves will make fine compost if the volume is large enough. When we had chickens and rabbits, we cleaned out their large enclosure several times a year, and the addition of that rich mixture of bedding straw and droppings boosted the heap’s heat and created excellent, nutritious soil food in short order.
A minimum size for compost bins is a cubic yard (3 x 3 x 3 feet). To make compost, alternate layers of dry material, such as dried garden waste, bedding straw, and dried leaves, with “wet’ material, such as green grass, fresh weeds, and smaller leafy/twiggy prunings. Cover each addition with a scoop of garden soil to introduce beneficial soil biota. Mix well, adding water to make everything evenly damp, then cover with a tarp to keep excess rain out. Keep moisture and air flow balanced, as excess water can displace air, making compost anaerobic (stinky). Compost typically reaches between 130-150 degrees F, hot enough to kill off most weed seeds and pathogens. When it cools down in a few weeks, the pile will be noticeably smaller. Mix it with a garden fork, bringing less-composted material from the outer edges closer in to the core. The pile will heat up and shrink again. After the third or fourth mixing, compost will be ready to use. Use lumpy compost in the vegetable garden or rub it through a coarse metal screen with the back of a shovel to make it look nicer. The result will provide your plants with a slow, steady supply of balanced nutrients while improving soil quality. What’s not to love? If you can’t manage all that, just make a big heap somewhere unobtrusive, adding whatever is around whenever you weed and tidy. Over time, this passive pile will also become garden gold. Onward, right?