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Cannon: The art of compost and mulch

POSTED: April 20, 2012 1:30 a.m.

Recycling in our gardens (composting) and the use of mulching makes common sense in our landscapes.

The practice of composting and mulching has grown increasingly popular over the last few years because these riches Mother Nature provides can easily be turned back into an economical way of producing soil and protecting plants from weeds, diseases and lack of moisture.

Composting is a convenient way to recycle leaves, grass clippings and trimmings from a yard. Almost any organic plant material can be used in this process. Materials such as twigs, spent flowers and vegetables, leaves and chopped up brush can be used to compost.

Avoid items such as diseased plants and weeds, since they can spread funguses and viruses. Invasive weeds can reseed in places where you do not want them.

Kitchen items such as fruit and vegetable peelings and coffee grounds can be composted, but avoid adding meats, bones or dairy products. They may attract unwanted animals.

Also, avoid pet waste to the pile. This could harbor parasites that might be unhealthy to humans.

You can build a compost bin in a variety of ways. The simplest and most common way is to buy or build a 3- to 4-foot wide container.

For sufficient heating and decomposition, the pile needs to be at least 3 feet high and 3 feet wide. The container will compost faster than big open piles outside and are visually more attractive. Put the bin in full sun and on a well-drained site close to a water source.

For best results, mix a variety of materials, both browns (leaves, etc.) and greens (peelings, etc.).
Mix four parts of brown to one part green. Layer 4 to 6 inches of a brown material to the bottom of the bin. Next add a 2- to 4-inch layer of green material (new grass clippings, vegetable scraps etc.)

Moisten lightly (do not saturate) each layer as you build the pile. Alternate the brown and green layers until you fill up the bin. Then cover with a lid or tarp to keep the rain out. The composting process will begin as the materials start to decay.

To manage, watch as decomposition shrinks the pile and add new materials to the top. Usually, the pile should heat up in about two to three weeks in warm weather. As this process evolves and the center of the pile cools, turn the pile and move the outside materials into the center and the center to the outside of the bin.

The pile should heat up again. Check back in a few weeks to keep the process going. After a few months, the process will produce a dark, crumbly textured, earthy smelling compost ready for spreading in the garden.

Mulching is also an important and beneficial gardening practice. Mulches conserve moisture, protect root systems from extreme heat and cold and help control weeds. It also provides a barrier between soil-borne diseases that will feed on plant material.

When mulches decompose on the top, they also add valuable plant nutrients back into the soil. Mulch prevents erosion on banks and sloping landscapes and prevents compaction from driving rains.

Excellent choices of mulches ready available in the yard are fall leaves, grass clippings, pine straw and chopped-up limbs and stumps. A mixture of several different organic materials provides the most attractive and uniform appearance on the soil surface.

You can also purchase pine straw or bark chips to use if you desire. Spread mulch under trees, shrubs, flower and vegetable gardens, and container plants. Apply 2 to 4 inches of mulch about 3 inches away from the trunk or main stem of a plant.

Unused mulch can easily be an additive for a compost bin. Recycling Mother Nature’s riches is a valuable and money saving practice. Adding these nutrient-rich products back into our soil is a wonderful way to keep a landscape healthy, disease and weed free.

Call the Hall County Extension Office for added information. We can provide valuable gardening resources for the green thumb enthusiast.

Wanda Cannon serves as Master Gardener coordinator and horticulture assistant for the Hall County Extension Office. Phone: 770-535-8293. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesvilletimes.com/life.


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