Fall is a great time to compost. Although it is not the most glamorous topic in the world of gardening, it is one of the most essential ones.
Compost is fine textured humus which is the end product from decomposed organic matter. Compost makes sandy soil hold water better and also makes our common red Georgia clay soil drain water faster. It also buffers soil PH levels. When you add compost to your garden soil, it improves the health of the soil by providing food for the organisms in the soil that help release nutrients to your plants.
Although you can add organic matter in its raw form, such as chopped leaves, grass clippings, hay and pine needles, it works best if it is composted first into a dark, rich earthy-smelling material. Almost any organic plant material can be used to start with. Twigs, chipped brush and old vegetables or flowering plants are good choices to start with. Foods from your kitchen, such as vegetable peelings and coffee grounds are other sources. Use it to mulch newly planted trees and shrubs or to top dress a lawn. Other uses are to build up vegetable or annual flower beds, as well as improving the soil around your perennial beds.
Although you can buy compost in bulk, why not make your own? By recycling organic yard waste, such as grass and dried leaves, you can save money. If you build the pile properly, the result is a feeding frenzy of soil bacteria that builds up heat and by the end of the process, you have a wonderful rich substance high in nutrients.
Avoid adding meat scraps, bones or dairy products. These materials attract unwanted animals. Avoid adding weeds, seeds or tubers of plants. Some may not be killed by the process and you do not want new weeds and plants sprouting up where you spread your compost. And never add pet waste to the pile. This could harbor parasites that are unhealthy to humans.
You can build a compost in a variety of ways. The simplest and most common technique is to buy or build a 3 to 4 foot wide container. For sufficient heating and decomposition, the piles 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 in your yard. Put the compost bin in full sun and on a well drained site close to a water source. Whatever method you choose, the process is the same, mixing carbon and nitrogen rich organic materials.
For best results, it's best to mix a variety of materials, both browns and greens. Four parts brown (leaves, chipped wood, twigs) to one part green material (old plants, vegetable peelings, dead annuals).
Fall leaves can be held in plastic bags throughout the fall and winter months for layering in the pile whenever browns are needed.
Steps to composting are as follows, add a 4 to 6 inch layer of brown, dry material on the bottom of the container. Examples are dried leaves, hay and straw. Next add a 2 to 4 inch layer of green, moist material on top of the brown layer. Green materials include grass clippings, vegetable kitchen scraps or cow manure.
Moisten lightly each layer as you build the pile and try not to make it soggy. Alternate the layers of brown and green materials until you fill up the bin. Cover the bin with a lid or tarp to keep animals and rain out. This will keep the pile moist so it will break down properly.
A compost pile can be easily managed. As decomposition occurs, the pile will shrink and new materials can be added to the top. As a result, you will have a slow release plant nutrient to use in your gardens. Always remember to supplement your flowers and vegetables with a fertilizer such as 10-10-10 because compost will not substitute for a fertilizer
Depending on the weather and season, in and about two weeks, the pile should heat up. Compost cooks faster in the warmer weather than the cooler weather. Once the center of the pile cools, turn the pile and move the outside materials into the center and the center materials to the outside. The pile should heat up again.
Continue this every few weeks and after a few months, you will have a dark color, earthy smelling, crumbly textured compost ready for spreading in your garden come early spring.
I am planning on starting a small compost bin this fall, so join me on the journey to healthy and happy plants and vegetables next year.
Thanks to the University of Georgia Circular 816, Composting and Mulching.
Wanda Cannon is a Master Gardener trained through the Hall County program and also serves as Master Gardener coordinator and horticulture assistant for the Hall County Extension office. Phone: 770-535-8293.