Compost – most magical stuff

Photo by Eva Elijas on

Compost is one of my favorite things. It’s sweet-smelling, comforting to let spill through your fingers, and full of remnants of plants and memories from the garden. I feel like a real gardener when I take the front off a finished bin and the rich brown earth” spills out, still steaming slightly, and full of fat worms and sometimes partially recognizable fibers from last year’s begonias, corn husks, and dill stalks. 

It may seem odd to be so enamored with such common stuff, but then it’s a gardener’s right to be eccentric, isn’t it? Compost is a feel-good garden tool since it is evidence of recycling from the garden and kitchen. And the things it does for the garden are nothing short of magic. It not only improves the soil’s tilth (isn’t that a great word!) but also improves its nutrient-holding and water-holding, and provides some extra, inexplicable disease resistance for the plants. 

Compost is the ultimate soil conditioner, texturizer and nourisher, and something I need in unmanageable quantities right now. When I left my old garden, the one thing I couldn’t move was the compost. Composting is very personal, and I would never assume that someone moving into a new house would want to continue my compost pile. So, like a good, dutiful gardener, I politely spread all that was left on the existing beds for the next owners. It hurt, knowing that I would be starting anew, without compost, and here was all this black gold from which they would reap the benefits. 

But enough grousing at what I left behind. It’s time to concentrate on starting my new compost pile. Since I’m in the city, I don’t have lots of room for piles. So, I’ve started with a commercial recycled plastic bin and a wire bin for leaves. So far it seems to be working well. 

Wire bin with shredded leaves

I’ve never used any of the commercial compost accelerators or synthetic fertilizers, and it seems to be decomposing well with only occasional turning, the addition of soil and shredded leaves every so often, and occasionally some water. 

I don’t use commercial fertilizers in the garden, and I find that my plants thrive as long as I pay careful attention to the soil. The only thing I add is compost as a top dressing or mulch a couple of times a season. I wish I could say that I follow a careful schedule for this, but mostly I topdress when I have enough finished compost. I turn under what’s there in the fall and then add more the following spring. 

Even though I don’t have nearly enough compost to use this season, there is a great feeling of comfort at looking at my bin, knowing it will be chock-full by the end of the gardening season and just waiting to be emptied on next year’s garden.

One of the benefits of great soil is great vegetables. My peas are coming on strong, and it won’t be long until I get to enjoy them fixed in a myriad of ways. A favorite is green pea bruschetta or dip: 

Green Pea Dip or Bruschetta

1 cup shelled garden peas (or thawed frozen peas)

2 T. extra virgin olive oil

¼ cup fresh basil leaves (you can change out the herbs to suit your taste)

Salt and pepper to taste

Pulse in a food processor until almost smooth but there is still some texture left. 

Serve as a dip for fresh vegetables or spread puree on toasted slices of French bread and top with a dollop crème Fraiche and a swirl of Sriracha or chipotle tabasco. 

Leave Your Leaves

It’s your friendly leaf goblin, showing up as I do at this time every fall. The leaves are finally starting to fall, which means that wonderful activity, leaf pick-up, is here. Instead of looking at them as a nuisance, why not think of them as gold for the garden? I’m going to try to convince you to change leaf pick-up into “leaf recovery.”

Attitude change about beauty

It means a mind shift from wanting everything to look pristine to a less tidy appearance. Why is it that when we see leaves blanketing a bed instead of commercially shredded mulch, it looks messy to us? Both are organic matter, and the leaves are actually much more colorful than shredded bark.

Leaves = Nutrients

The leaves that turn lovely hues and then drop are nature’s source for replenishing the soil beneath trees and shrubs. A plant takes up massive amounts of nutrients through its roots as it grows to use in food production for its healthy leaves. When the plant sheds its leaves, those nutrients are released back into the soil as the leaves decay. These nutrients are waiting to be used by the plant next season to produce leaves, stems and fruits.

So, taking away the leaves simply takes away nutrients. We can add nutrients by fertilizing, of course, but for the most part, synthetic fertilizers do nothing for the soil, and certainly make a dent in the wallet.

Mulched tree circles make happy, healthy trees

What do I do with them?

So, can you simply leave them where they fall? And exactly how do you use these leaves that are so plentiful?

For the leaves covering your grass, think of the prairie’s cycle. Prairies don’t usually have trees, so there are few leaves. The organic matter from a prairie cycle comes from the grass itself. So, it is a good idea to clean up the leaves on your grass in order to keep the grass healthy and free from disease.

On the grass

Simply mow the grass and leaves together and blow it all in your landscape beds. This is not a hard job, but may take some creative driving or pushing to round them up into beds. If your mower is a mulcher, take out the mulching chute cover so you can blow and direct the leaves as you would into a bagger. If you don’t have that capacity, you can simply mow over them a couple of times and they will be ground finely enough to leave in place.

In the beds

Beautiful beech leaves making a winter blanket for the tree

As for landscape beds, take a walk in the woods and you will see blankets of leaves covering the ground beneath trees. This cycle of leaf fall and decay maintains the soil health and this, in turn, allows the trees to grow and remain healthy. We can easily duplicate that cycle by simply not taking the leaves away.

You can leave them whole where they fall and eventually they will begin to break down into the fine humus that is so good for plants. Or you can shred them with the mower and blow them into the beds. You will have ready mulch every year without the back-breaking work of adding wood mulch to your beds.

Make winter beds for pollinators

Keep in mind that native bees nest in the ground, and bumblebees burrow into leaf litter to spend the winter. Leaf litter also protects countless types of butterfly pupa such as black swallowtails and fritillaries.

Make a leaf pile for later use

Shredded leaves on my vegetable garden

I have a lot of leaves, so after I fill my beds, I scoop all the extra into a pile at the back of my property and let them sit there over winter. Next spring I can dig into the bottom of the pile for some of the most beautiful shredded mulch to go directly on my vegetable garden instead of straw.

After a couple of years, my leaf pile will be reduced by half and will be composted beautifully for use all over the landscape. The British have been doing this for years – they are famous for their leaf “mould” which they use in the garden and even in containers. Best of all, it’s free!