Fall is a fine time to compost


Gardeners are always amending their soil to make it the richest and best it can be for their plants to thrive.

One of the best soil amendments is compost, which can easily be made at home. Compost is nature’s

Autumn’s fallen leaves make an excellent compost source.

way of recycling yard waste and kitchen scraps into usable and valuable material.

Compost is organic matter that has decomposed. The end result is a product rich in minerals. It helps to lighten heavy clay soil, and it allows sandier soil to retain more moisture and nutrition. Compost also attracts earthworms. I am always elated when I am turning my garden soil and find earthworms — a sign of healthy soil.

Compost happens on its own out in the woods as leaves break down over time, but to speed up the process and make plants work for you, start a compost pile.

Fall is the best time to begin the process since so many materials are readily at hand — leaves, grass clippings and spent vegetable plants. You will need a combination of green and brown matter to make it work. This is referred to as the C:N ratio or carbon-to-nitrogen ratio. Carbon is considered the brown and nitrogen the green.

Microbes break down the various components of your compost pile. They are most efficient if you have

Compost calls for a mix of brown (carbon) and green (nitrogen) matter plus moisture.

a 30:1 ratio of carbon and nitrogen. If you just have a big pile of leaves (carbon), it will break down, but very slowly. Add a little green (nitrogen) to the mix, monitor the moisture level and turn the pile, and that pile of leaves can become dark, rich compost in a matter of months. Too much green matter without enough brown matter results in a smelly pile because the microbes can’t use it all, and ammonia gas is left behind. A balanced mix is best.

Fallen leaves are a great carbon (brown) source, along with straw, shredded newspaper and corn stalks. Nitrogen (green) sources include food scraps, coffee grounds, grass clippings, spent plants from the garden and rotted manure. Don’t make it too complicated. If you add raw materials and turn the pile, you will make compost.

You have probably heard that a compost pile can get very hot as it breaks down raw materials. Many gardeners think it will get hot enough to kill weed seeds or disease organisms. A typical home compost pile will get hot, but usually not uniformly hot enough to kill out all the problems.

For that reason, don’t add weeds or diseased plants into your compost pile, or you may inadvertently add them back into your soil. I got some compost from a friend, and now I have pigweed and crabgrass in some raised beds where I never had them before.

If your perennials, vegetables or annuals simply got tired and quit for the season, by all means add them to your compost pile. But if they had tomato wilt or powdery mildew, let them go with the yard waste pickup. If you think compost piles get hot enough to kill these problems, how do you explain the errant squash or gourd plant that starts growing in the compost? If a vegetable seed can survive, so can a weed seed or disease. Practice good sanitation both in your garden and in your compost pile.

Vegetable scraps, coffee grounds and fruit peelings are wonderful additions to the compost pile, but avoid adding any meat and dairy products, which can attract rodents and flies. Wood ashes can be added in small amounts, but a large volume of ash will contain too much salt. If you are adding large volumes of bagged leaves to the pile, it will help if they are shredded. Shredded leaves or newspaper will break down much faster than whole.

There are many styles of composting, from open bins to large tumblers. Find what works for you. If you

Compost can be maintained several ways, including in bins.


are using kitchen wastes, bury them in the pile to avoid animal issues. Water is also needed. A dry pile won’t generate much heat, but a sopping wet pile won’t either. Some gardeners want to control the moisture level, so they cover their piles. Others simply turn piles with a pitchfork, monitor moisture levels and add water if it is too dry.

Compost enriches your soil and adds welcome organic matter. While compost is not considered a fertilizer, a compost-rich soil will encourage better plant growth. Compost can be used as a soil additive or mulch. It works well in the ground, containers or raised beds.

Janet B. Carson is a freelance writer specializing in gardening.