There is more to compost than meets the eye, and not all compost is created equal. Ask a dozen successful veggie gardeners to describe how they make, tend and use their compost and while some basics will be common to most or all of them, they will also have different stories to tell.
A local Zone 6 gardener – local to northern New Jersey that is – had an interesting take on the subject. He described three different types of compost.
On the left of the photo is a fresh or working pile; compost in progress you might say. You can see that the lawn has been newly mown; the top layer of this pile is composed of grass clippings. Were that all the pile consisted of it would cook very hot, and also cook down tenfold. It would also not be very good compost. It would be super rich in nitrogen and very little else.
However, underneath that grass are horse manure, straw and well-rotted sawdust plus some kitchen scraps as well. It is the foundation of useable compost but a foundation only. It must be turned to aerate and mix the components and to promote fermentation by adding oxygen.
This compost will have three to four times its current volume added to it as it is mixed, to create a useful amount of finished compost. It will spend winter under a tarp to prevent too much leaching off of nutrients. It will be used next spring.
All the way to the right is compost which has overwintered and which is being used now. It is worked into the garden soil when new plants or seeds are introduced. It is alive with earthworms of all sizes and this is a very good thing as we soon shall discover.
The small pile in the center is the same basic compost as that on the right except that it has been run through a ½” screen and is now sifted second year compost. Our gardener uses this for mulch around the bases of his plants; a thickish layer holds moisture and prevents water from simply running off over the sides of the raised beds and being wasted. It also delivers a shot of organic fertilizer right to the base of the plants each time it rains or a watering can is applied.
We have our earthworms to thank for this. As they worked their way in huge numbers through the second year compost they excreted small pellets called worm castings. Worm castings are concentrated plant nutrients, in a water soluble form which the plants can use directly, without further action by microorganisms.
Ordinary eight week compost while it is worthy stuff cannot be directly be absorbed by the root systems of plants until the worms, bacteria and other microbes in the soil have broken it down into a more useful form.
There you have one gardener’s theory of compost use. Soon, we will follow up with a step by step guide for creating the ultimate gardening gold, perfect compost.
Like this article and would like to see more by this writer? Simply click on the “subscribe” button.