Compost in your Garden: What, How, and Why

Composting is a great way to make sure you have healthy and happy plants. But when do you begin to compost? The best answer to that is last year. If you had composted last year, your garden would be that much closer to being ready for spring planting.

What is compost?

Compost is organic material such as leaves, lawn clippings, fruit, vegetables, twigs, kitchen scraps (plants only) and paper that is heaped and left to decompose. With enough time and patience, the organic matter turns into very rich soil. Adding compost to clay soils makes them easier to work and plant. In sandy soils, the addition of compost improves the water holding capacity of the soil. Adding organic matter to the soil, such as compost, can help improve plant growth and health. How do I make compost? Compost requires four main components. Organic matter, oxygen, moisture, and bacteria. Too little or too much of any of these components will significantly slow down, or even stop, the composting process. Organic matter should also be a mixture of 1 part brown and 1 part green matter. Brown organic matter is dead leaves, twigs, manure, etc. Green matter would be lawn clippings, fruit scraps, etc. Your pile should be turned every 2-4 weeks to encourage oxygen and bacteria growth. During the dry months, either add water, or more green waste. The length of time that it takes for organic material to turn into compost varies. Under ideal situations, compost can take as little as 3 months, but the average timeframe is likely to take 4-6 months.

What’s next?

The best time to apply the compost is early in the spring, as soon as the ground dries out enough to walk on and not get all muddy. Ideally, you would spread 3-4 inches of compost over the top of your garden area then till it into the top six inches of soil. Some gardeners prefer to do this in the late fall as well, so that they can get a head start in the spring.

Add compost to soil in vegetable gardens, annual flower beds, and around new perennials as they are planted. You may also use compost as mulch around flower beds, vegetable gardens, or around trees or shrubs in landscape beds. Apply a 3-inch layer. Be careful not to apply mulch close to the main stem or trunk of the plant.

Why is using compost important?

Compost will improve the condition of almost any soil. Compost improves the structure and texture of the soil enabling it to better retain nutrients, moisture, and air for the betterment of plants. A garden with sandy soil doesn’t hold on to the water, leading to plants drying out too quickly. Compost helps the soil retain moisture levels. Clay soil gets too hard and is sticky when wet. When compost is mixed with the clay soil it helps to separate the clay soil and allows water and air to penetrate better. Compost contains a variety of nutrients for your garden. In addition to Nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium found in typical fertilizers, compost also has many micronutrients such as manganese, copper, iron, and zinc.