It's never too late for a better garden

By Tom Walden
Dec. 05, 2012 @ 07:44 AM

It’s not too late! That statement could be applied to a number of subjects. It’s not too late to live within your means. It’s not too late to straighten out your life. It’s not too late to be more concerned about others. It’s not too late to say you’re sorry. I think you get the point. As long as you’re breathing, it is not too late to do a lot of things better.

Three things intersect this time of the year. The first is the large number of leaves that have fallen from trees and shrubs. The second is all the above ground plant material that has been killed back by the frosts that have blanketed our area. The last is the time that you have during the colder months of the year. When you have those three things come together, you have a recipe for bigger, better and healthier plants.

In about two years leaves and plant material from your lawn and garden undergo a change that produces compost. The finished product is the very best additive you can give to any plant in your landscape. In the past I’ve given you the official rules and regulations for a perfect compost pile. By that, I mean it had to be at least 3 feet square. It also had to have a correct ratio of green (discarded plants, grass clippings, etc.) to brown (dried leaves, twigs, dead branches) material. It should be placed in full sun, kept moist and turned periodically. The mixing and turning introduces more air into the compacted middle causing a faster rate of decomposition. That is the official recommendations and rules.

There is just one problem. It is hard to be perfect. For me, it’s impossible. So, let me tell you the reality. Nadine and I have two large compost piles. We really believe in the stuff because we have seen it grow bigger, better, faster. However, the compost piles are at the edge of a grove of trees, in partial shade. Why? It is because we grow something almost everywhere else. They are too far away to supply supplemental water. Rainfall from the Lord is all they’re ever going to get. They also started out as mostly brown material. One pile is 100 per cent brown, crushed leaves. We have had so many leaves, I can’t be concerned with a green to brown ratio. There’s another secret I want to reveal. They have never been turned. Are you kidding? They’re 10-12 feet across. They are big. I don’t have a tractor. I don’t have the time. And, my back hurts…a lot.

What I’m saying is sometimes you just can’t go by the book. That should not stop us, though, from doing something. Those leaves will still decompose. If you doubt me, take a short walk in the woods. The floor of a forest is covered with the current year’s leaves. Just below those new leaves you will find black, rich compost that came from old leaves.

Let me finish this subject with some truths.

Any size compost pile will work. It all depends on how much room you have available. It’s up to you. If you like things neat and tidy, you can create a barrier to hold your leaves and such. It can be metal or vinyl fencing, wooden pallets or whatever you have handy. I’m not going to purchase something to hold a compost pile. It has to be something I already have.

Put everything feasible in your compost pile. I didn’t say everything possible. You don’t want old grease, meat, bones, oil or anything that readily attracts rodents. We are a nation that throws a great deal of food away. A lot of that can go into a compost pile to help grow more food. I mentioned our compost piles are some distance from our house. I don’t want to make a visit at the end of every meal, regardless if it’s summer or winter. To ease that chore, Nadine purchased a 3-4 gallon container with a snap on lid. The scraps go into the container. When it’s filled, a trip is made to the compost pile. You’d be surprised at how fast it can fill with vegetables and fruits past their prime. Even the flowers that are brought into the house are dropped in when they wilt. We drink both tea and coffee every day. In a year’s time, we collect a lot of tea bags and coffee grounds. The coffee filters and other small paper items also go into the compost pile.

A compost pile doesn’t have to be stinky. It should actually smell good and earthy. If it doesn’t have that smell, it probably needs more moisture. If it constantly smells bad, you have too much green material or it is too wet. Green plant waste and food scraps can pack together very tightly and create a soupy mixture. This can create excessive odors. The cure is to just add some brown material such as sawdust or dried leaves. This is more likely to happen when the compost pile is very small.

Larvae are normal in compost piles, especially if they contain a lot of green material. Many larvae are from beneficial flies and insects. If you have a lot of ants the compost is probably too dry.

There was only one perfect person. You, your garden, your compost pile, or your techniques aren’t going to be perfect. That should not stop you. Just do it!