Compost can be a huge asset to your garden!
Compost has so many benefits when used in the garden. From increasing organic material, nutrient levels, and water holding capacity to encouraging micro and macro organisms to live in your soil. Compost is all around an incredible asset to your garden.
Compost can be sourced from many different places. It can be as simple as buying bagged compost from your local garden store, however that gets expensive. You can also use composted yard waste like grass clippings and leaf litter. You can also use food scraps, and this is the most common source of compost. Your compost can even be something like shredded paper or scrap cardboard.
Anything that is organic material (made from something living) can break down and be used for compost. Obviously, different materials have different nutrient breakdowns, but any compost is better than no compost! Even things like paper and cardboard, while low in nutrients due to being highly processed, offer organic material which is vital to soil health.
Something that’s important to remember when using yard waste for compost is that if you use grass clippings your grass cannot be sprayed with any fertilizers or pesticides. This can negatively affect your garden. It is also important that the grass was not cut when the grass had gone to seed. If it was your clippings will contain grass seeds which can grow either in your compost or when you go to use your compost in your garden. This will create so many unnecessary weeds.
I like mulching with cardboard as part of my efforts to raise the organic material percentage of the soil in my garden. It’s a good way to add a baseline of organic material at the root zone of where I’m planting. This way my plants don’t have to try to grow roots straight through hard, dense, clay soil (which is the soil type I’m working with.) By the time the plants I have just added to my garden (whether through seeds or through transplants) reach past the compost layer I have planted them in they will not be met immediately with soil that is hard to grow in. Instead they will be met with a now softened layer of compost and packing paper.
Rain and moisture can be both your best friend and worst enemy when it comes to composting. Compost piles need some moisture to keep the organic material from completely drying out and breaking down at a much slower rate, but too much moisture can be a detriment to a compost pile.
If a compost pile gets completely bogged down with water from heavy rain it can become to water logged for the proper level of oxygen to be present for the microorganisms breaking the organic material down. This can cause your compost pile to sour. You’ll know this has happened when your compost pile takes on a sour, foul, or rancid smell.
However, it can be to a degree prevented. If your compost pile is taking on too much water you can do a few things to try to help it through the times when heavy rains are present. The first is to simply turn your pile. This can be achieved just by using a shovel to flip what’s on the bottom to the top. Another remedy can be to add very dry material into the pile. This can be in the form of adding paper to a food scrap or yard waste pile.
Sourcing paper doesn’t have to be hard! My family adds things like oatmeal packets, tea bag envelopes, small paper cups that we had sprouted seeds in, and shredded old documents.
One thing I’ve experienced a lot in using food scrap compost is that when you put down a new layer in the spring there is always seeds leftover from our food scraps that then sprout in my garden.
In fact, the majority of what I grew this warm season in my garden was compost volunteers! I got so much food and decorative gourds just from using compost! The best part is that these seeds were free and took very little effort, because they planted themselves.
Compost volunteers, in both mine and my mom’s experience, tend to grow a lot stronger and healthier than plants we had purposefully planted. They also tend to produce more heavily than their deliberately planted counterparts. This can be attributed (possibly) to their having already survived the winter outside in a compost pile. They are truly the strongest seeds from their source fruits. This means they have the best attributes for growing in the spring and summer.
By adding compost and organic material to your garden you also increase the water holding capacity of your soil. The rule of thumb is usually two inches of rain per percent of organic material. So if your soil has a base line of two percent, it can hold four inches of rain at one time.
Raising your organic material percentage and thus raising the soil’s water holding capacity is vital in my gardening, because Delaware is notorious for getting heavy rains. We can get rainstorms that easily dump four or more inches of rain at a time. These can happen as often as once a week during the rainiest time of the year.
This is something that causes a lot of environmental issues in Delaware too. Commercial crop fields do not utilize resources like compost or other sources of organic matter and so the organic material percentage of the fields is often sub 1%. This means that there is a lot of run-off! All of that run-off harms not only the plants that then need more water and fertilizer to compensate, but that run-off causes issues wherever it ends up. If it ends up in a waterway, the nitrogen can cause algae blooms.
I highly recommend that you give creating your own compost a go. It doesn’t have to be complicated. A pile on the ground with a weighed down tarp draped over it works perfectly. My family’s compost pile is some pieces of scrap wood in a square with the compost in the middle. It’s all covered with a fine mesh cover. That simple set-up yields us plenty of high quality compost to use in our gardens in the spring and summer.
There are many benefits to using compost no matter the source materials. You will reap these benefits in the form of healthier plants and more produce! Now is a great time to start as the growing season is wrapping up. It’ll be a sound investment into next year’s garden.
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