Let’s keep it Growing!!!
So you put in this monster garden, brilliantly conceived and flawlessly installed with the sweat of your brow and whatever comes from hardworking brains.
You and your whole family are eating great, delicious, healthy, rejuvenating fresh produce! You have been voted most likely to succeed at life by your HOA (which btw is a pretty forward thinking homeowner’s association for allowing you to put in such a vast, avant garde garden in the first place). Your keen, homegrown-veggie-fueled wits let you easily win arguments on the internet concerning politics and tightly held moral beliefs. Everything is going great…until….
One morning, as you are sipping coffee looking out over your spread, you think that maybe, just maybe, your extravagant heirloom tomatoes were a little bit further along this same time last season. Then you think the same thing about your pickling cucumbers…hmmm…maybe it’s just your imagination…
Or maybe you didn’t listen to your garden coach about the importance of tending to the microbial life in your garden soil and regularly replacing the essential nutrients that your plants rely upon to make you oh so happy and healthy with their bounty…all that bounty!
So, what do you do now?
Let’s talk COMPOST!
I’m about to jump into some talk about what it takes to make soils happy and healthy and how to keep them that way. If you need a refresher, jump back to the Soils unit and meet us back here.
Healthy garden soil is a big mash up of all kinds of critters, plants, and minerals, some bacterial, some fungal, some alive, some dead, and everything in between, some even mycorrhyzal. Okay, so the mycorrhyzal ones are all fungi, but I digress.
When your soil fertility is low enough for you to notice symptoms like slow plant growth or increased problems with disease or pests, even without a regular soil test, it’s time (actually past time) to get busy replenishing the materials that your gardening has been removing.
The most common approach that will give you nutrient rich and biologically active compost/humus (aka black gold) to restore your garden soil is the standard compost pile. A compost pile or two near your garden area will also give you a convenient place to break down and harvest all of the good scraps that come out of your kitchen as well as your garden.
Although composting is really an art, meaning there are as many nuanced approaches to compost as there are composting gardeners, the basics are as follows:
- Clear grass and other objects away from a shaded patch of ground one square meter (or one square yard) that you can water easily and that close enough to your garden to easily haul materials back and forth
- Pile your garden plant waste (stems, stalks, husks, end of season plant skeletons, etc.) and plant-based kitchen scraps in addition to other bulky plant materials (leaves, smaller tree branches, etc.)
- Layer dried brown materials, like fallen leaves or old pumpkin vines, in with wet/green materials, like rotten fruit scraps or potato peels, in a roughly 30 to 1 ratio. Thirty parts dried material to roughly one part green/wet.
- As you are layering, water the pile with a garden hose, rainwater is ideal but tap water will be fine, enough so that when you take a handful from the pile and squeeze it, it will only shed a few drops of water.
- Using a garden fork or shovel, turn the pile every two weeks or so and add more water if it is necessary to maintain the original moisture content.
- The materials in the pile will break down faster in hot climates and more slowly in cool climates, although the pile, if mixed well and kept moist, will make a lot of its own heat to aid the process.
- When the pile has shrunk to roughly 1/3 of the original size and you can no longer identify the materials that you put in the pile originally, i.e. leaves or scraps are now all little black fluffy bits, your compost will be ready for use.
- If your compost starts to smell sour or generally like something dead, it has probably gone anaerobic, maybe from too much water, and the biology inside can’t get enough oxygen. The answer is to turn your pile without watering it. If the smell doesn’t immediately improve, but the pile is still noticeably wet or muddy in consistency, turn it every day for a few days and see if conditions improve.
- If you can’t use your compost immediately, it helps to cover it with a tarp, etc. to keep the elements from continuing to break down, dry out and generally reduce the quality of the nutrients and biological life that it contains.
- Make a couple of piles, one at a time. That way you can have one maturing while you are feeding/building another slowly with your day to day garden scraps.
Now that you have this abundant source of black gold, add it to your garden soils either before you plant when you prepare the bed, or after you harvest, by mixing it into the top three to six inches of the soil and watering it in afterwards. The water helps move the nutrients and biology down into the soil so they can be more protected from the harsh sun and dry environment of the surface.
If you follow my blog closely, you will know that I am a fan of composting in place, aka Sheet Mulching.
Your curiosity will be sparked and rewarded in this Sheet Mulching How To.
Coleman’s book New Organic Grower has some great theory and a guide to compost production.