by Ray Greenstreet
Autumn’s to-do list: Rake leaves. Dig up annuals. Cut back perennials.
Check. Check. Check.
Tasks completed, and now you’ve got a pile of yard debris to deal with. Sure, you could stuff it all into a big bag and head to the landfill. But a better idea – for the environment and for your garden – is to gather and pile. Done right, you’ll have black gold for next spring.
To compost successfully through chilly winter, your compost pile must stay “active” – and this requires generating enough heat even in cold temperatures to allow microbes work, breaking down the material. A frozen heap won’t do you much good.
Ideally, compost in an enclosed bin with insulated sides. A black bin situated in a sunny spot can help trap heat from solar radiation. If you don’t have a commercial bin, you can still create a compost heap. It can be freestanding, but it’s nice to have it defined. Three pallets held together with zip ties work well. Try to get the pile as large as you can, at least 3 feet high and wide. To help insulate it through the winter, stack bales of straw along the sides. It’s also a good idea to maintain a thick layer of bedding over top of your composting mass to further trap the heat. Loose straw and fall leaves are very well suited for this task.
Don’t over-think the ratio or formula; make it about 50% greens and 50% browns. Green material (nitrogen) includes grass clippings or perennial trimmings, green leaves, and animal poop from rabbits, goats, horses, guinea pigs, chickens and the like (but no dog or cat poop as it can harbor unwanted bacteria). And don’t use any diseased plant material.
Brown material (carbon) can be straw, newspaper, dried leaves, wood shavings, or shredded paper.
Don’t forget kitchen waste. Fruit and vegetables, tea bags, coffee grounds and egg shells are all valuable additions to the compost pile.
Once you have a pile, grab a pitch fork and mix it up. And do it again every week to ten days to keep the pile aerated and provide plenty of oxygen, necessary to the composting process. And all that tossing is a good excuse to get outside – and supplement your winter exercise regime.
Moisture is as important as heat in the composting process. Your compost pile should always be slightly damp, either from added material, rainfall, or snowfall. If it dries out, add some water. Don’t drown it; if it is too wet, there won’t be enough air space in the pile to provide needed oxygen.
To keep your compost chugging along all winter, keep adding fresh waste materials. Purchase a countertop compost bucket – or use a large plastic container with a tight fitting lid – and keep it handy for collecting kitchen scraps. It won’t be long before you get in the habit of dumping the cutting board into the bucket instead of into the garbage disposal or waste basket.
And you condo or apartment dwellers with not a lot of outdoor space can compost, too. Use a sturdy plastic bin with a tight-fitting lid, add some soil or spent potted plants, and kitchen scraps. Stick to manageable amounts of vegetable and fruit peelings, coffee grounds and tea leaves, shredded paper, egg shells, etc., and you’ll have compost for spring’s potted annuals.
By following a few simple rules – keep it hot, keep it moist, and keep it turned – when spring rolls around you will have a pile of garden gold. Add your homemade compost to the vegetable or flower garden for robust, healthy plants.
Composting is a great way to get rid of yard and kitchen waste – and benefit both the garden and the environment.