The Cranky Gardener

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Get Down and Dirty

It doesn't matter if your garden is large or small, whether you plant in raised beds or containers or directly into the ground, or whether you grow vegetables or flowers, your key to success is healthy soil filled with an abundance of organic matter. Few of us start off with perfect soil, so the best news in gardening is that any soil - no matter how poor initially - can be improved.

It's time to get down and dirty about dirt. If you haven't looked at your garden soil lately, then it's time you took a peek. What I want you to look for is organic matter. Dig around a bit and see if you can find a few roots, some crumbled leaves, or other partially decayed matter. If so, that's good. You probably have relatively good soil to begin with. If you find no organic matter, that's bad. Chances are your soil is depleted and requires some extra work.

Here's another bit of good news. The best way to add organic matter to your soil, regardless of its current composition, is to use compost. So instead of worrying about whether your soil has too much sand or too much clay or whatever, just add compost. That's the one thing you can't overdo. I can already hear you groaning. There are dirty rumours out
there about compost being complicated to make, or too expensive, or too much work. And the smell! Dreadful! Who wants their gardens to stink from a compost pile? None of those things are true. So relax.

Making compost isn't rocket science. Mother Nature has been doing it for millions of years. Microorganisms in the soil do most of the work for you. They break down the raw organic matter into dark, rich, plant-loving compost. My heart skips a beat just thinking about it. All you have to do is find a good spot, collect the raw materials, water and turn it occasionally and wait. The waiting is the hardest part.

What sorts of things go into a compost pile? You need a balance of brown and green ingredients. Brown ingredients are high in carbon. They include straw, dry leaves, stems, sawdust, and pine needles. Green ingredients are high in nitrogen. They include grass clippings, spoiled fruit and vegetables and kitchen scraps like potato peels. Smaller items will decompose more quickly than larger ones. So, if you're in a hurry, it is better to cut large items into small pieces. Don't add woody stems and branches unless you chip them first. And try to avoid using meat scraps, fats, oils or bones. These decompose slowly and attract mice and other animals. Don't add weeds with seeds. The seeds may survive the composting process. Don't add diseased plants. Don't
add perennial plants with spreading roots like Bermuda grass and thistle. And don't add feces from your pets or... ahem... yourself. You could introduce diseases into your soil.

There are two kinds of composting, cold and hot. In cold composting you pile up your organic matter - whatever you happen to have - then go away and leave it for a couple of years. No watering, no turning, no problem. This is the easiest way to compost and if you have lots of room for multiple piles and plenty of patience, you can reap a satisfactory product.

Hot composting is a little more work on your part but will yield quicker results. In hot composting you will need to alternate layers of brown and green materials, turn the pile occasionally and water it. This will encourage the microorganisms to multiply quickly, which in turn causes the centre of the pile to heat up. The temperature in the center of the pile can reach 71ºC (160ºF).

The pile should start to heat up in four or five days. When it starts to cool again, it is time to turn it. The more often you turn it, the more quickly it will decompose. If you start with well-balanced brown and green ingredients, you can have usable compost in one to two months. Be sure that the location you choose drains well. Otherwise
you will wind up with a dead pile. You can elevate your pile by placing boards across concrete blocks if necessary. In a cool climate it is a good idea to locate your pile in a sunny spot. In a hot climate, it is better to locate it where it can get some shade.

There are several ways of enclosing your compost pile. You can use concrete blocks, landscape timbers, boards, or whatever you have to create an enclosure. One of the least expensive ways is to use bales of straw. They are easy to arrange, easy to move when you need access to the pile, and can be used to make more compost when they get grubby. Some people like to use wire cages. My dad always used this method. He took chicken wire, wrapped it around 3 foot fence posts and tied it with bailing wire. Then he filled the cage with his ingredients and watered the pile. He built a second cage close to the first. When he wanted to turn the pile, he took his pitch fork and transferred the pile from the first cage into the second.

It is possible to make compost in garbage cans. Punch several holes in the sides and bottom, and then set your can on bricks or concrete blocks to raise it of the ground and allow it to drain. Or if you have plenty of money to spend, you can purchase special tumblers. These are in two basic styles. The first is designed to be rolled on the ground. The second is on legs and has a handle that you use to turn the drum. The manufacturers claim that you can make useable compost in these in five weeks or less. These range in price from about $100 to $250 depending on the size. It is also possible to purchase bins with doors at the bottom for removing the compost. These are priced between $70 and $150.

Compost can be used in more than one way. If you want to use it for mulch, you don't need to wait for it to break down completely. New compost used for mulch is best spread in the fall to allow it to break down more over the winter. If you intend to use the compost to improve your soil texture, it is better to let it decompose until it is impossible to see pieces of the original material. This fine compost should be turned into the soil before planting. Fine compost can also
be used as a side dressing around your plants at any time during the growing season.

If your pile begins to smell bad it is because you have too high a ratio of green to brown material. Add some straw or sawdust or other brown material. If your pile begins to grow weeds, then it isn't hot enough to cook the seeds. Avoid adding material with seeds or make sure they are in the centre of the pile. If the pile doesn't get hot enough you need to add more green ingredients such as grass clippings. If it is too dry then get out the hose and water it.

Adding compost is the best thing you can do for you soil. I hope you'll give it a try.

This week's recipe is for your plants, not you.

Compost Tea

Take a burlap bag and add a shovelful of compost. Place this inside a bucket filled with water. Cover it and let it steep for 4 or 5 days. Once it has steeped you can use the water the same way you would any liquid fertilizer. If you want to spray it directly onto the leaves of your plants, then it will be necessary to dilute it. You can re-use the 'teabag' 3 or 4 times.

Happy composting.

The Cranky Gardener


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