Building a compost pile -- 9-29-14

(The leaves that are changing color now will soon fall, providing a good source of organic matter for your compost pile. For an upclose picture of a leaf, click on the photo.)


Imagine for a moment that you are the parent of a small child. When you let this child out to play in the yard (under your watchful eye) you dress him or her in clothes that are too small. And so, instead of thriving and having a good time, your child struggles to move at all. 

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Yes, but that’s exactly what you’re doing when you set out transplants in soil that has little or no organic matter in it. Comes the rain and afterward the sun, and the soil around those transplants becomes brick hard, leaving your transplants with little “wiggle room” and no way for their roots to get then air they need. Or, the soil holds water too long, and the roots may rot as a result

Years ago, when Extension Agent Larry Dell told me that plant roots need air, it seemed wrong. Why would you bury something in the ground that needs air? But when I began to regularly cultivate the soil around our bell peppers, they thrived because their roots got the air they needed. But there’s an easier way for them to get it and that’s to build space into your soil by adding organic matter, in the form of compost.

We had a compost pile back in West Hyattsville where I grew up, but I don’t remember my parents doing anything with it, although every night one summer my father fed strawberries to a box turtle that lived under the pile of leaves and branches.

I can’t promise that your pile will bring you such a benevolent companion, but if you use your yard waste to make compost, your garden will be better for it.

If your yard waste includes black walnut leaves and other debris from that tree, compost it separately to keep the juglone from affecting other plants. And if you’re adding kitchen scraps to the pile, skip the meat. It will draw unwanted animals. And some fruit, especially cantaloupe, will attract groundhogs. They may look like cute little fuzzy creatures, but they will get fat eating your garden if you don’t control them.

So how do you start a compost pile? Set aside a place in the yard for it and decide how you want to enclose it. There are commercial devices — tumbler-type and static ventilated holders that will produce compost. My son, whose Greencastle-area vegetable gardens we have written about, built himself a tumbler out of an old plastic barrel.

But if you’d rather try composting on a small scale before making such an investment, here’s our advice.

Choose a sunny location, so the sun’s heat can help process the yard waste into compost. To enclose the pile, snow fence, chicken wire or scrap lumber are good choices, but whatever you use, make sure it doesn’t prevent air from going across the pile.

Build your pile in layers, beginning with one of grass clippings and leaves. Don’t tamp the pile’s layers down, because then anaerobic bacteria will do the work, creating an unpleasant smell and a slimy mess instead of the dry, one-inch chunks that you want.

Let the grass clippings dry on the lawn before you add them to the pile and, if possible, shred the leaves. A friend of mine used to mow over the leaves and blow the shredded pieces into the side of an outside building, which made it easier to rake them up. I suggest raking them onto a tarp, then pulling the tarp back to the pile.

Then top those substances with a layer of manure. If the manure is fresh, make sure it has time to break down a bit, so as not to burn plants when you use it in the spring. If you want to speed up the process, add a bit of 10-10-10 fertilizer to each layer. That will provide the nitrogen to heat up the pile.

How hot should it get? About 120 degrees in the center. Every few weeks, material on the pile’s outer edges should be forked to the inside to make sure that everything decomposes at the same rate. In the dead of winter, the pile can be covered with a layer of black plastic so that you can use use solar energy can keep it warm.

If you’re really ambitious, you can create several smaller piles, so that each one is ready when you need it for succession plantings and mulch.


It’s almost time to begin the eight-to 12-week “long night” treatments to get those Christmas poinsettias to color up again. To get the nice red (or white) color associated with this holiday plant, it needs long, cool and dark nights in a room that’s 55 to 60 during the night and 75 degrees during the day.

The easiest way to do this is to place a cardboard box over the plant at night, so that a sudden burst of light doesn’t fool it into thinking that the long night you planned isn’t two short ones.

It’s a seven-day-a-week challenge and one mistake means starting all over again. Many greenhouses deal with the issue by using sliding drapes to make sure that their plants aren’t all green for the holidays.


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