Compost: Gardener’s black gold

Compost: Gardener’s black gold

NJ Herald – Lifestyle section Sunday, May 27, 2007

Vicki Johnson Column

It is the stuff “real” gardeners treasure – almost as much as our favorite plants.  (If you’ve got dirt under your fingernails or torn cuticles and/or leave daubs of garden soil whenever you walk indoors, you are what I call a “real” gardener.

“Black Gold” is what we call it.  It goes by another names as well: compost.  I never seem to have as much as I want or need, given that I consider compost to be the ultimate mulch material for flower beds and kitchen gardens.  While it provides the benefits of other mulching materials – suppresses weeds, helps to conserve soil moisture – compost also adds invaluable nutrition back to the soil.  Compost is close to being the ultimate organic “fertilizer”.

However, most of breathe a sigh of frustration or resignation when we think about compost, because it is not something we can instantly make or purchase.  And too many of us still hold fast to a long-held myth: making compost requires back-breaking work.  Poll most people and the will describe a compost pile as a stinky bin of leaves, vegetable peels, grass clippings that must be turned with a pitch fork on a regular basis.

Making compost does not have to be “hard labor” and does not have to stink.

First of all, what is compost?  It is decayed plant matter.  And the goal is to speed up the process of decay.  Here is the basic recipe:

  • Organic material (leaves, grass clippings, vegetable kitchen waste excluding and mixed with meats or fats)
  • Garden soil (this is full of living microorganisms you want in your compost, whose sole mission is to break down organic material into the nutritional elements plants need.)
  • Water
  • Oxygen
  • If you can get it: cow, goat, sheep, horse or chicken manure (this adds even more micronutrients to the compost and will help to speed the decomposing process)

The secret to nearly pain-free composting is to start now and let it take the time it will.  It does help to contain the pile in some manner, using a bin you purchase, or constructing a fenced cage with chicken wire.  Next, place a bag of lime in waterproof bucket that you can leave right next to your pile.  As you mow your lawn for the first time, empty a single bag of clippings into the bin cover with a shallow layer of dirt.   As you dead-head flowers, toss them on the pile.  Collect kitchen waste in a container with a lid (yes, the early stages of decomposition are smelly) and when you deposit this “goo” on your pile, sprinkle a dusting of lime over the top.  The lime acts as a deodorizer while it contributes to the health of your compost.

Every now and then (depending on how fast your pile grows), poke holes into the heap with the handle of your pitch fork or rake, to let rain water and air into the center of the pile to collect rain water.  If we go a week without rain, water your pile.

If you have a large lawn producing prodigious amounts of clippings each week, be advised that a pile of grass clippings alone takes a very, very long time to decay.  The blades of grass are so small that when piled up they compact into an airless mass.  Oxygen is as essential to the process as water is and the piles of cut grass need to be mixed with other organic matter to loosen them up.  Shredded newspaper (use that time in front of the television to help your garden!) can help aerate grass clippings.  Better still, if you have a pile of leaves from last fall, use those alternately with your bags of grass clippings (and remember next fall to save your leaves instead of lugging them down to the curb in bags).  If you have access to manure, add a layer of this to your pile and sprinkle with deodorizing lime.

Because my kitchen compost has been attracting the neighborhoods bears, I’ve reluctantly given up on traditional compost, and begun relying on leaf mold, which is almost as fabulously nutritious for the garden as compost.  And I discovered, by accident, just how easy it can be to make.  In the fall of 2004, I collected all of my leaves into heavy-duty, extra-large black plastic bags.  I did not chop the leaves up in a mower, I simply raked them up and stuffed them in the bags.  If the leaves were dry, I left the tops open until rain moistened them, then I tied them shut.  Next, I punctured the bags in 10 or 12 places, all over the sides and bottoms – so the air could circulate.  I left some of the bags exposed to direct sunlight; others were stored in a shady spot.  I assumed that it would take at least two years before the leaves turned to “black gold” but was pleasantly surprised when I opened the bags 12 months later to discover sweet smelling mulch ready to spread in my garden.

What surprised me most was that the bags stored in the shade were nearly as ‘cooked” as those that had sat in the sun all year.