At the Zoo, we collect our leaves, some plant material,
herbivore animal waste and put it in a huge pile to “cook.” We have been adding
it to our beds beginning with the annual change outs. As we work our way
through our beds, putting our plants to rest for the winter, we are adding a
thin 1” layer to the top of our beds. This layer will break down over the
winter adding nutrients, bringing decomposers to the beds, and improving our
soil. This last factor is the main reason we are beginning this process.
Do you compost? Do you have leaves? Do you rake your grass
clippings or catch your grass clippings and bag them? By combining layers of
leaves with layers of grass clippings, you could start your own compost pile.
If you start one today, you will be able to use your humus by next fall.
Compost is the decomposed material created with earthworms
and other decomposers. It takes time to break down, but the nutrients you
return to the soil will make beautiful flowers and healthy vegetables. You can
add organic matter to your garden beds with little or not cost to you. You can
reduce the yard waste in our landfills by up to 25%. The improvement to your
garden beds will be healthy plants with less fertilizer in the soil
You can use leaves, hay, pine straw, old plants, grass
clippings, fresh plants, alfalfa, vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, tea bags,
washed eggshells and manure such as goat, rabbit, horse, and cow. In general,
meat or meat wastes are not recommended for your compost.
The key to a great compost pile is turning. Turning your
pile with a pitchfork or shovel will increase the decomposition. The bottom of
the pile will decompose faster than the top because of the heat. But if you
turn your pile regularly, all the material will decompose equally. It is not
necessary to spend a lot of money on elaborate compost bin makers. You can
begin by making a pile. For different structures go to: http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/extension/compost/chapter3.html
This is an excellent time to use nature’s bounty to provide
for next year’s enjoyment.
You are probably wondering when your compost will be ready
to use. The process can take from two months to one year. The material will
cook down to black crumbly pieces, known as humus. Your pile will have shrunk
by more than half. The leaves and clippings are unrecognizable. It will have
the smell of soil. If you used fresh manure, it will be necessary to allow the
organic matter to “cure.” The curing process should take six months to allow
the organic matter to age. If you place compost in your beds before it is
ready, you could do harm to your plants.
What should you do with your compost if it is ready? Now is
the time to add it to your garden beds. Place a one- or two-inch layer on top
of your beds and incorporate it in by turning the soil with a shovel or tiller.
If that is not possible because of tree or shrub roots, gently work it into the
soil with the tines of a pitchfork.
The benefits that you will realize are a decrease in the use
(and cost) of commercial fertilizers. Compost does not contain all the
components necessary for healthy plants. What it does is bring earthworms that
will aerate the soil. Compost improves the structure of your soil by allowing
better water flow and moisture retention. Your plants will be healthy and happy
with the application of compost to your garden beds. If you can have several
piles working at the same time, you will have compost ready to add to your soil
whenever you need it. Check out what’s happening to our garden beds next time
you visit the zoo. See if you notice the use of compost. This is the first time
in several years it has been applied. It will take several applications over several
years to receive the full benefits of improved soil.