By MJ (Mary-Jane) Pilgrim, Master Gardener
Spring is here, but it’s still not great weather outside for gardening. In a few more weeks, once the temperature reaches 10 degrees Celsius on a regular basis, you will have lots to do! But for now, here’s something to think about: compost.
Compost is decomposed organic matter like leaves, grass clippings and kitchen waste, and it’s the ultimate garden fertilizer. It contains virtually all the nutrients a living plant needs and delivers them in a slow-release manner over a period of years. Compost made with a wide variety of ingredients will provide an even more nutritious meal to your growing plants. Compost is free, and you can make your own.
April is a great time to check the compost pile if you already have one. If it’s too wet, stir and add dry (brown) material like dry leaves, then cover. If it’s too dry, stir and add water (or green material), and mix thoroughly. Either way, mix thoroughly!
At the end of the month, when the weather has improved and the garden is dry enough to work in, add a 1-2 inch layer of well composted material (sweet smelling, crumbly and dark brown) to your garden beds, scratching it in lightly or even just laying it on top. When the earthworms wake up, they will pull that material further into the soil, saving you the trouble of digging it in.
If you don’t have a compost bin, spring is a great time to start one! In our area (Peterborough, ON), composters are available at City Hall, 500 George St. N., or at the Household Hazardous Waste Depot, 400 Pido Rd. GreenUp, Ecology Park, hardware stores and your local municipality likely also carries them. By next spring you could have your own fertilizer ready for the garden, and save a lot of food waste like peelings from going directly to the landfill.
If you don’t have/want a physical composter, a different plan is the trench method of adding compost to the garden. In this method, you dig a series of holes or a trench and lay compost down into it throughout the summer. It’s wise to plan where this trench will be and where this year’s garden will stand. At the end of the summer, cover the trench with one to three inches of soil, and plant your garden next spring in the spot where this year’s trench is. That will get different spots of the soil nourished throughout the years. You can learn more about this type of composting from fellow MG Suzanne Seryck’s article from May 2018.
If you’re new to composting, here are some pointers:
- Patience is key. It’ll take six months to a year for compost to be ready to use, so think about investing in a compost pile now as part of your spring garden prep. Your garden will have plenty of natural, nutritious food come next gardening season.
- Don’t forget the water. If your pile is covered or you are having a dry spell, add moisture. The pile should be always be damp, but not wet.
- Keep the compost loose and turn every so often. That will keep air in the system and allow for healthy decomposition.
- Have a balance between wet (green) and dry (brown) compost. Add natural items like grass clippings, leaves, pulled plants, weeds, plant-based food scraps and wood chips.
- Don’t add meats or fatty foods, dairy, fresh animal droppings, or diseased plants.
- Never add plants containing seed heads to the compost, or next year that plant will pop up everywhere! I will never look at feverfew kindly again, after this happened to me.
- The basic rule of thumb is to never add a significant amount of one type of material at the same time. Variety is key.
- Again, always remember patience. Using compost that is not ready will rob garden plants of nitrogen. You’ll know the compost is ready when it crumbles easily and has a very earthy smell.