Making compost for the garden

Organic gardening begins with a quality fertilizer. Making garden compost saves money and provides the nutrients your garden is hungry for.

It's November and leaves now blanket much of Seattle -- and while it is good for some leaves to remain on your garden beds, it is not good to have them in the lawn or on sidewalks, roofs, and in the gutters. We recommend raking the fallen leaves into a giant pile where they can sit and stew for the next several months. Why? Well, first of all, because it's tradition to let the kids and dogs run and jump in a big pile; but also because they will make a great compost for the garden. Depending on your yard, you may want to purchase or build compost bins to keep the leaves contained and from blowing away.

How does composting work?

Let me back up a bit. Composting is the process in which biological material breaks down into re-usable components. After a few months of rain, and occasionally turning over with a rake or shovel, the pile of will miraculously become a compost mixture of rich soil to nourish your garden or lawn in place of expensive and not-so-ecologically-friendly fertilizers.

How to make compost for the garden

food scraps used for making compostIf you want to make compost from food scraps, then it is recommended that you bury them at least two feet underground (and still avoid meat scraps). The material should decompose within about 2-3 months.

IMPORTANT: Do not add food scraps to your compost bins (and definitely no dairy or meat) if you live in an area where the smell could attract bear, raccoon, and other unwelcomed animals. Do not add pet waste to your compost if you plan to use the compost on your vegetable garden. This fecal matter could contain pathogens that are harmful if absorbed by edible plants.

Other compostable products…

  • Paper towels
  • Cardboard (not plasticized)
  • Egg shells
  • Coffee grounds
  • Lawn clippings
  • Newspaper - This is especially beneficial if it has “soy” ink or other bio-friendly inks; if not, it should be avoided as compost for vegetables.

It's better to make compost from leaves than burn the leaves in Seattle. We recommend that you do not burn your leaves -- EVER! Burning leaves in Northwest Washington can cost you. If there is a burn ban in effect, you could be fined as much as $10,000…No kidding. So why take that risk and lose valuable compostable material in the process?

Helpful advice for composting

To compost correctly, the leaves and other material need to be shuffled occasionally. A rolling barrel composter does this automatically but you can attack your compost pile with a pitchfork or shovel for good results.

Go ahead and add some dirt from your yard to the mix. It’s good to the get all the little bugs involved in the project and worms are excellent at helping to break down organic materials.

Consider mowing over the leaves or use a chipper/shredder until you get very small fragments. The smaller the leaf pieces, the better and faster they will compost. If you have a chipper/shredder, add trimmed/fallen branches to add a bit more material.

Add manure from horses or herbivores, bone meal (again, not a good idea if you have to worry about bears or even dogs!) You can get manure from or from the Seattle Mounted Police (they have to do something with it!) by calling 206-386-4238 (or call Environmental Construction and we can arrange to have it delivered to you).

If your compost mixture begins to smell disgusting, it may need to be lifted, tossed, and turned to allow air to permeate. These nasty smells are from “anaerobic” bacteria. These bacteria will create compost, but you may not like the final smelly result. For a healthy and pleasant compost mixture, worms and airborne bacteria are needed; and in order for them to survive, they need to be able to breathe. So inspect your compost pile every couple weeks and make changes as necessary.

If using compost bins, you may want to have several of them. Use one or two for leaves and a couple for clippings throughout the year. An effective approach is to use cascading or sequential bins so that as the compost ages you can add material at one end, or to a designated “fresh” compost bin, and slowly, as the compost turns into re-usable soil and mulch,remove it from the other end and put it on the garden.

Using compost in gardening

Compost can be HOT -- not that you’d burn yourself on it -- and it may even give off steam. This is a good sign, so don’t panic and call the fire department. But you should know, before compost is completely broken down, it can burn plant growth. This is because it is “phytotoxic” or acidic. Make sure your compost is well aged and cured before using.

This is worth noting, if you are purchasing composted top soil or even mulch for your garden, sometimes compost can be too hot for your plants and stunt their growth or even kill them. Make sure you get the oldest compost material so that it will have the desired effect.

When you are ready to use your composted material, rototill or double-dig the soil and mix with the existing dirt. Spreading raw compost onto the surface of the garden could damage more than help. Compost that is well mixed with existing soil has more opportunity to cool down and meld with your existing soil without harming delicate plants.

Environmental Construction is at your service. Call us and we can help you construct compost bins, compost areas, cascading compost areas, and help you create a rewarding eco-friendly garden.

Category: Landscape Ecology

Environmental Construction, Inc.

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