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Wednesday, March 23, 2016

A Word On Composting #VegetableGardening #SpringPrep #Gardening

A Word On Composting #VegetableGardening #SpringPrep #Gardening

My compost pile December 2015... The Beginning

So, it is spring. As I have stated before, now is the time for spring garden preparation. One of the biggest advantages to starting all of your seeds indoors as I did in my seed starting post (#SeedStarting--click for tips and tricks on how to do that) is that even for cold-hardy plants, they can get a jump on growing as you clean and clear out your garden space, especially if you're a first-time gardener, and especially especially ("oh my god! He used two especiallys. Where's the grammar gestapo?") if you're not a first time gardener and gardened in the same place the previous year. "But wait, I, as an experienced gardener, use the back to Eden method or blah blah blah. I don't need to clean anything." Maybe... or maybe not.

Why the need to clean up an area? Well, I can't speak specifically for you, but I can tell you what it has been for me. For one, while I have a large front and back yard where I live, I can't say the same thing for everyone. Many people who may want to garden might not have that much space. I wanna say I have half an acre but I'm not sure. Even with that, I still want a backyard to run free in for when kids visit or whatnot, and I especially don't want to have everything just be a muddy mess in the spring or over the winter after I am done gardening. Therefore, I keep a lawn (organically treated), though, in the event of the apocalypse, I can see myself easily ripping it all out and growing nothing but food. For now, it works fine.

What does that mean? Simple! I confine my gardens to small spaces. I have figured out a way to maximize the space while maintaining a sense of beauty. This, however, does make the space pull double-duty during the off-season. The same growing space during the season, I use as the dumping ground for my compost over the winter.

To weigh a few pros and cons, one of the big pros is that using the same space where I will plant as the place to put my winter compost is beneficial to the ground. My compost consists mostly of leaves, grass clippings, coffee grounds and food waste, a lot of which comes from last season's uneaten edible garden waste. This means that I don't have to put down a tarp underneath and worry about the ground staining, I don't have to have a barrel or a tumbler that will be too heavy to turn if it gets snow on it. It also means that as the compost sits on the ground, regardless of whether it is actively hot composting or not, it draws bugs from the ground.

This was the same compost pile after a week. Notice the darker color and fewer discernible leaves.

Huh? But, it doesn't do that in the winter, right? Wrong. Even some experienced gardeners still believe that when the compost has gone completely cold, it supplies no nutrients for the bugs and insects that break it down, nor warmth for them to stay close to the surface. In fact, I've found the typical earthworm will still stay not only close to the surface, but will crawl deep into the center of the pile even as it has gone cold in the middle of the winter. Granted, all of the bug and bacterial activity will slow; however, that creates a great petri dish for the thing that many gardeners are missing in their soil: fungal activity. That's right, we forget in all of this bacterial melee to invite the fungi to the party. Ha! I just made a gardener's funny. It's a classic joke. You didn't laugh? Well, you'd have to be a gardener to--oh, you are a gardener? Right. I forgot. Well, you probably just need to grow your sense of humor to include more stupidity. Moving along.

You ever left something like rice or a cooked food in your fridge for too long, then came back and found it all moldy? Well, actually that is not just mold growing on there, but a mixture of fungus and bacterial spores. As Frankenstein once said, "It's alive!" However, good fungus, unlike most good bacteria, can still thrive in colder temperatures. They like it wet, but then again, don't we all? Eww! Did I just make a dirty joke in the middle of a compost post? No! Get your mind out of the gutter.

See, when you stack your compost up into a big pile over the winter (again, no less than 3x3x3 feet) and you turn it a few times before it gets too cold for you to go out and do that, especially after your Aunt Anne came over with her homemade heavy-as-a-newborn-baby fruitcake and lovingly forced you to try some, and you know you can't turn Aunt Anne because she so old that she dated Methuselah and watched God create dirt (#HappyPalmSunday to you Christians out there), and somehow, with her bony Skeletor hands she mixed, chopped and baked her way to holiday delight, when you come back to that pile in the spring, you see all of these really dark leaves that haven't been composted but changed. Most people will automatically assume, well, that's because they were close to the bacteria, but in actuality it was the fungus trying to break them down and survive, spreading their spores and hoping for a spring rebirth. Unfortunately, that rebirth rarely happens because as soon as you come out, what do you do? Turn the pile again, bringing in the bacteria which then heats it up and destroys any and all fungus. So that, my friends, is another benefit to composting on the same ground where I'll be growing: the fungus will remain in a thin layer of leaves and soil when I move the pile.

Unfortunately, it is that last part of that long paragraph that is the biggest con or psuedo-con. Before I can plant anything, especially cold-hardy veggies that can thrive in the cold dampness of Northeast Ohio in March, I either have to move the compost out completely or simply start everything in doors. The big problem here is that since it was winter, it took longer for the pile to warm-up, meaning that it took longer for it to break down, meaning that even with some of my best efforts, I still have a half-decomposed pile of organic waste sitting in my gardening space.

Even worse, because I have composted over the winter instead of the summer, my cold-hardy plants will get little to none of the new compost because it's still a month away from being ready. Therefore, I tend to move the compost to the lawn for about two to three weeks as I prepare my gardening space. Now, I say that this is a psuedo-con because of the fact that if you are winter composting and want the compost for the coming season, chances are that you will have to move or flip your compost the first chance you get in spring anyway. At least with my method, you may not have to transport it to a far-off location from it's bin to the place in the garden you'll ultimately need it. Also, I've found that taking a look at the ground on which your compost sat during the winter is a great indication of your garden's health. When peeling back this year's garden pile, I found a ton of worms having an, uh... well, a very, um... well, they certainly were enjoying #HappyInternationalHappinessDay in their own little way. This means that while the ground was cold, they stayed warm enough to not only continue eating and making vermicompost throughout winter, but my spring will be filled with a ton of new baby worms ready to make my garden amazing (#MakeMyGardenGreatAgain).

The question now is, what do I do for gardening prep? Well, outside of clearing out any overwintered weeds, I also check for potential drainage problems. Heavy snow or rains, the ground freezing and unfreezing, and animals or bugs making large divots in the ground during the winter can wreak havoc on the next year's growing patterns. You might have had a fantastic soil last year using mulch, leaves or the Back To Eden gardening method (if you're a beginner and have never heard about it, don't worry about it now, I'll talk about it sometime later in the season), but due to the things I mentioned, a great deal of your good soil could be washed away this spring. That's why it's so good to check. Also, during this time you may want to take a soil sample if you're a beginner or this is only your second or third time doing this. Soil samples can tell you the pH of your soil and alert you to any mineral deficiencies you might have that will effect your plants later in the season.

As you can see, I have my tarp laid on the lawn to the left with the pile. 

Lastly, I tend to use this time to burn anything from the previous season that might not have broken down at all or that I suspected had diseases. Leaves I never composted and don't plan to mulch, some food waste that's hard to compost like bread or egg shells and sometimes even some junkmail. Note: The junkmail burned is not put into the food garden but into the ornamental gardens in the front or at the very back of the house. White envelopes can contain chemicals that may be harmful in large doses to both the plant and to you. It should also be pointed out that burning stuff can add a minimal amount of pollutants into the environment which is why it should only be done once a year, if at all. Consult your local environmental office (usually you can also ask a police officer) to see if it is legal to burn things in your area.

To conclude, compost is a great benefit to your soil even before it has finished. While nothing or few things are out in the garden now, take this time to either start a compost or finish your winter compost, keeping close watch over it in the coming weeks. With proper care, it should be ready for use come late April--planting time for most people.

What do you think? Would you still prefer not to compost as it gets too messy and you never do it quite right? Does it take too dang long when you need it right away? Or are you a big proponent of composting? If so, where do you compost: on the spot or in another area? And why do you do it where you do it? Let me know in the comments below (hint: click the no comments button if you see no comments).

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Until next time, "It's a dirty job but someone's gotta do it! Whoa-oh-oh! Hi! I'm Mike Rowe, and this is Dirty Jobs."

P.S. Sigh! All this talk of dirt and composting and grime and gook got me so nostalgic for Discovery channel's Dirty Jobs. I really used to love that show. I watched nearly every episode. Ah well, I guess there weren't enough dirty jobs in America. I blame outsourcing.

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