The Garden Patch: Just a few more things you should know about compost

Well, we’ve been talking about composting – let’s discuss materials a little in depth.

Grass clippings are a common waste and as you know, clippings caught in grass catcher bags on lawn mowers comprise a large portion of yard wastes and are excellent for use in compost piles (as well as other applications). However, recent research indicates it is beneficial to leave clippings from regularly mowed lawns spread over the lawn or mulched into it. Therefore, unless you are intent on collecting them for your compost pile, allow grass clippings to fall back to the lawn. A couple of years ago, I bought a blade for my mower that cuts clippings to a very fine (short) size and they decompose very quickly – good investment!

Many gardeners follow the steps to make compost without understanding how compost can be used around the home. Compost can be beneficial in a variety of horticultural applications.

For example: fertilization and soil improvement. Addition or organic material improves looseness and workability of soil. Heavy, tight clay soils (do we have any of that around here?) benefit from the loosening effects of organic materials. But sandy soils benefit as well from the improved water holding capacity and fertility that organic materials provide.

Compost also contains nutrients that plants require. While specific nutrient content of compost varies with the types of material composted and the amount of water in it, a general recommendation is to apply compost at the rate of 50 to 100 pounds per 100 square feet of garden space. This generally is translated to 1 to 2 bushels of material for every 10 by 10 foot area of the garden. The best time to apply compost is just prior to tillage – either in the spring or in the fall. Tilling incorporates the compost throughout the plant root zone. Many Kansans till garden soils in the fall, and compost made early in the season should be ready for use by then. If you have a two-pile system, compost from last year can be used.

Can I compost when I plant? Durn tootin’! A band of compost in the bottom of a row trench or several shovels full in the bottom of planting holes can be added. This is especially beneficial for individual tomato plants, perennial flowers, trees and shrubs. The slow nutrient release of compost works through the early growth period. Compost can also be used as a top dressing over the row to prevent crusting of soil for seeded vegetables and flowers. Compost can be mixed with water to form a substitute for soluble fertilizers or starter solutions. As a general rule, mix equal parts of compost and water. The leftover compost can be added to the garden soil later.

Let’s change the pace from compost to mulch, one of the most beneficial practices for summer gardening in Kansas. Mulches hold moisture in the soil, prevent weed growth, and reduce soil crusting and splashing. Mulches also help keep the soil cooler during hot weather. A layer of compost 2 to 3 inches thick along a row of vegetables or flowers or spread around perennial flowers, trees or shrubs reduces moisture fluctuations and evaporation from the soil surface. After the garden season, simply till the mulch into the soil as a source of organic material.

OK – back to compost! Compost that has been screened for large particles can be mixed with soil or sand (in about equal parts) and used as a plant growing medium. The compost must be well deteriorated and free of harmful disease organisms and insects to ensure healthy seedling plants.

Put WHAT in my yard? The best way to use compost for a lawn is to apply it liberally before planting the lawn initially. A thin top dressing of compost can be added each year to provide some fertilization of the lawn.

Some cautions about using compost: It is important to understand that compost is not a cure-all for garden soils or problems. The benefits of composting certainly outweigh the limits, but it is possible to overdo applications of compost.

Some composts may provide too much of a nutrient if applications are excessive. Lush, rapid growth, often at the expense of good fruit production, can occur. Compost that is not completely decomposed may continue the process of decomposition when added to soil in large amounts, removing or tying up soil nutrients until decomposition slows. This is a particular concern with compost applied in spring and when it is incorporated into the soil.

Creating a dark, cool environment at the soil surface may provide an ideal environment for certain types of insects such as sow bugs or squash bugs. Specific control measures for each of these insects may be necessary. Consult with your county Extension agent or garden dealer for information about control measures.

Some types of compost applied to the soil surface can pack into a dense layer that may be impervious to water. This is frequently an indication of poorly made compost. Using more soil with the compost or mixing soil with the compost prior to use can correct this situation.

That’s my two cents worth for this week! Next week – different topic! Till next time!


stevehallerSteve Haller, of Osage City, a K-State Research and Extension Master Gardener, writes The Garden Patch featuring gardening ideas and tips for gardeners in northeast Kansas. In his words: “I am not a horticulturist. By education I am an economist. By experience, I am a marketing guru from a local to an international scale. Gardening was taught to me by my grandfather and my Mom, and I’ve been doing it since World War II was going on.”

Steve can be contacted at [email protected], or leave questions or comments below.

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