There are a heap of reasons why every gardener should be making compost, and one of the best is that it is so easy.
Autumn leaves will soon be abundant and free. A quick round of tidying up around the garden will yield a hardworking starter pile of the leaves, spent flowers and green trimmings you need to turn yard waste into the best soil amendment there is.
Healthy soil is the basis of a healthy garden, and compost is full of the essential bacteria, microbes and fungi that support fertile soil. Linda Chalker-Scott, a Washington State University extension horticulturist and author of "The Informed Gardener" (University of Washington Press; $19.95), puts it simply: For vegetable gardens or flower gardens, she says, "Compost is great stuff."
Gardens are not often laid out in advance with a designated spot for composting, but it's not much trouble to find a place to make compost. Any corner will do, and it is easy to landscape around a compost heap with flowering shrubs or evergreens. The minimum size for a healthy working heap of leaves, grass, garden clippings and vegetable trimmings from the kitchen (if you choose to use them), is about three feet on a side -- smaller than most shrubs. Set aside a big corner of the garden, perhaps five or six feet on a side, and you'll have room for a compost pile or a bin, an old garden fork, and maybe even a wheelbarrow. You're not really giving up part of your garden -- you're putting the garden to work, recycling waste that you might otherwise have to pay to have hauled away.
Good-looking compost bins make it easy to incorporate composting into the life of a garden, and they keep the process tidy. Wooden bins with wire sides, or with space between the boards, allow plenty of essential air circulation. Compost tumblers (you can find them made of wood or heavy-duty plastic) hold a surprising amount of compost ingredients and make it easy to turn the pile, which speeds up the decomposition process.
Convenience is an important consideration when you're trying to decide where the compost pile should be. "A composting area is functionally the heart of your landscape," Mary Palmer Dargan says in her book "Lifelong Landscape Design" (Gibbs Smith; $30), but that doesn't mean it belongs right in the middle of the garden. Dargan and her husband, Hugh, created a large composting area, 35 feet long and about 16 feet wide, behind their kitchen garden in Cashiers, N.C. The space, discreetly fenced off, allows for three 3-foot-square compost bins, a compost tumbler and a place to store their chipper and garden cart.
Connie Link, owner of Sweetbay garden design in suburban Kansas City, set up a three-bin composting system on one side of her vegetable plot that doesn't take up much more room than the bins themselves -- it's about four feet deep and 10 feet wide. She didn't try to hide the heap; it's right at hand, so she can toss garden waste into it. She also doesn't have to cart the finished compost very far -- a path through the tomatoes leads right to the bins. Another Kansas City gardener installed an 8-foot-by-4-foot section of fence (fence sections in various designs are sold at building-supply stores) in front of his composting area, parked a garden bench in front of it, and planted a rose to clamber on the fence.
Gardeners who make their own compost can't seem to get enough of it. A wheelbarrow full of crumbly brown compost, cool and slightly moist, is a fine sight to behold. When you work a shovelful of it into the soil, it improves the soil's structure, adds nutrients and improves drainage. Spread on top of a flower bed or vegetable garden as mulch -- it helps control weeds and replenishes the soil as it breaks down. A layer of compost mulch around plants also looks beautiful.
It's almost impossible to make all the compost you need, so just making enough to use for the vegetable garden or the flower beds is a reasonable goal that will allow you to make use of a great deal of yard waste without giving up much space.
Composting in place works, too. If you simply don't have a spot for a heap, mow over autumn leaves and spread them on flower beds, in the vegetable garden, or under shrubs (just skip the kitchen scraps). You're making great leaf-mold compost right there in the beds.
A bag of mulch can cost $3 or more -- who says money doesn't grow on trees?
Sources and additional information
Garden shops and gardening mail-order specialists sell all sorts of compost bins. Among the most extensive offerings are those of Gardener's Supply Co. (www.gardeners.com), which sells large and small bins and tumblers, and also crocks to keep in the kitchen for broccoli stems, onion skins and such destined for the compost heap. The company's website also offers advice on making and using compost.
Williams-Sonoma's Agrarian gardening lifestyle company (www.williams-sonoma.com/shop/agrarian-garden/?cm_type=gnav) sells cedar and redwood compost bins and a redwood compost tumbler, along with composting supplies. The website also has a basic guide to composting.
If you'd like to make a bin yourself, take a look at the University of Missouri Extension's plans (http://extension.missouri.edu/p/g6957) for several sizes and styles of compost bins, and the free publication "Making and Using Compost" (http://extension.missouri.edu/p/G6956).
Linda Chalker-Scott, author of "The Informed Gardener," writes about her research and "horticultural myths" on her website (http://puyallup.wsu.edu/~Linda%20Chalker-Scott/Horticultural%20Myths_files/index.html). Her research on soil amendments, including compost, can be found here.
Jeff Lowenfels explains the science and biology of compost and makes his case for backyard composting, even on a small scale, in his book "Teaming with Microbes" (Timber Press; $24.95).
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