Fall in the northern hemisphere is here, the days are shortening, the leaves and your garden are fading, and it just feels like it’s time to start wrapping up this crazy year.
For many of us, this summer was spent at home, trying to social distance, cooking more from home, and spending time in the garden. Hopefully your 2020 “pandemicˮ garden produced an abundance of healthy, fresh food for your family to enjoy. Hopefully by now, you are buried in tomatoes and zucchini and can’t bear to eat or harvest any more.
As we approach fall, you may be wondering “What now? How do I put that garden to bed for the year?” Before you rip out all your plants and faded produce and throw them into your trash bin, WAIT! There is richness there yet to be captured! Turn your fading garden into next year’s garden soil and fertilizer. Compost your garden to recycle it!
Composting is a completely natural process to transform your garden waste, fading plants and scraps into rich, plant-available nutrients to nourish next year’s and subsequent gardens. Incorporating compost into your soil brings and feeds fungi, soil bacteria, insects, worms and more — all supporting healthy plant growth.
Sounds great, so how do I do it? Here are five easy composting steps:
Think about where you have space — perhaps a hidden corner, near your garden, away from your house. The spot can be shady or sunny. The idea is to have a place and structure that has free access to the elements (soil, air, water).
For a structure, you can go as simple as a compost pile or as fancy and as a designer compost bin to fit in your landscape design.
Other options are purchased continuous composter boxes or tumbler batch composters. You can also make your own bins out of pallets, 2x4 boards, barrels, fencing, etc.
Think about the amount of material you’ll put in. Garden waste only? Leaves? Kitchen produce scraps? Coffee grounds? It can all go into it (just skips the bones, fat and meat scraps). Design, purchase or assemble your composting system and then get ready to fill it!
Now, back to your fading garden. Pull up all your plants. Pick up the dropped or faded produce. Rake it all up to capture dropped leaves. I recommend NOT putting in weeds, as often weed seeds can survive composting and you do NOT want to seed your future garden with weeds.
Chop up all your woody or viny plants into 3- to 6-inch pieces and load your composter or pile. Add some garden soil or compost starter and some water to get the process going.
Consider adding your leaves as fall progresses, branches from trees or bushes that you prune and plant-based food scraps from your kitchen.
Overall target your compost pile to be about 45% dry material (desiccated plants, branches, straw, etc.), 45% green material (fresh leaves, grass clippings, plants, kitchen scraps) and 10% soil.
This means that for every 10 liters of green or brown material, you can add 1 liter of soil. The soil contains the starter bacteria, fungi and worms to get the compost process started. You can continuously add more material to your compost bin or pile throughout the year.
One of the most important things you can do is turn or aerate your compost bin or pile regularly. For tumblers, turn them; for bins, mix them; for piles, dig and turn them over.
Target mixing a couple of times a week, depending on how fast you’d like the decomposition process to go. Over time, you will start seeing fewer recognizable scraps, more worms and the creation of a rich, black soil, or humus — a gardener’s black gold.
Temperature, moisture and pile composition will all impact the rate of decomposition, but don’t worry about perfection — eventually it will all decompose! Keep the pile moist and feel free to keep adding to it.
Depending on where you live, your compost may be ready to use in the spring or you may need the spring to continue the composting process. Your compost is ready when it looks like blackish, fluffy, soil. Again, don’t worry about perfection. Some identifiable scraps are just fine, and they will eventually all decompose. Before you start your garden next year, mix your compost into your garden site through tilling it in, adding it to holes where you plant seedlings or adding it into the rows. It works best in the root zone. Keep composting year-round by collecting and adding clippings, kitchen waste and other plant material. You’ll have a constant supply of free, rich, fertile, compost to fuel your garden, yard and flower beds.