Do you want to increase your soil structure and provide nutrients for your plants? Are you interested in your soil managing water better? Do you crave healthy, robust plants? The answer to all of those questions is compost.
You can purchase compost, but it’s easy to make your own. Turn your food scraps into much needed organic material for your garden and pots. It is a process that can range from simple to complex, your choice. We’ll start with the simple approach first, then increase complexity. Regardless of which you choose, you can practice alchemy and turn organic material into “black gold.”
Three ingredients are needed to make compost:
1) Carbon: Brown things like leaves, brown grass clippings, or finely chipped (and chemical-free) wood/sawdust
2) Nitrogen: Green things like fresh grass clippings, fruit peels/cores/rinds, vegetable scraps, healthy plant material
3) Water: Just enough additional water to moisten- not soak- the above ingredients
Other items you might want to include are coffee grounds, eggshells, and nut shells. Adding dairy products, meat scraps and cooked foods is discouraged for the likelihood of attracting pests and the possibility of icky bacteria developing. Also, don’t put a diseased plant in your compost, as that provides a means for the disease to spread. If you’re exceptionally tenacious, add super-high fiber like sunflower stalks and corncobs, or seeds that are nearly impossible to crack open like avocado pits… they make a grand challenge! (Most of us choose to put them in the trash.)
Here’s compost making at its simplest: pile stuff up and ignore it. Keep chucking material on top, and in a few years the bottom will become organic soil. If that works for you, stop reading. If that doesn’t work for you, keep reading.
If you want it ready to use by June, you’ll have to actively control the decomposition. Start by mixing the contents to increase air circulation, and potentially adding moisture and/or nitrogen. Keeping the compost pile in a structure helps manage the mixing process. Large-scale containers are 3 feet wide by 3 feet high, a great size if you anticipate large volume of leaves in the fall. Pallets* or chicken wire are a simple and inexpensive way provide structure. Smaller or fancier options such as spinning barrels, or vertical containers are available commercially.
Unless you’ve got a container that can be spun, mixing is a manual process. A pitchfork works well to turn high-volume heaps, especially if you can access the heap from the front. If you’ve got a top loading pile, a gizmo like this is a great tool.
Most compost piles in our area have plenty of carbon. After a winter of sitting, some of the nitrogen from the green items may have leeched out. Sprinkling a handful of something high in nitrogen every several inches provides additional nitrogen to feed the microbes that do the decomposition work. We carry blood meal as well as a variety of all-purpose lawn fertilizers high in nitrogen (and without weed killing ingredients) that can boost nitrogen content.
“Where do microbes come from?” you ask. They are present in everything, including your compost heap. If you want to increase the quantity, stop by the store and pick up some compost maker. It can be added dry or mixed with water. Given our arid climate, your heap is likely dry so extra moisture is helpful. It might need even more water than what’s needed for applying liquid nitrogen or compost maker. The goal is for contents to be moist, but not dripping wet. As you turn or layer your compost pile, add water every several inches.
Once you’ve done the initial building and mixing, let the microbes do the hard work. You’ll know they are working if the temperature rises within the pile. You might even see steam on cool mornings. Stir every 2-3 days and add more water as needed. More open containment systems like pallets and chicken wire will dry out quickly, especially around the edges.
After a couple of weeks of mixing a well-activated compost pile, you should see more and more dirt and fewer chunks of recognizable objects. It’s rare to get rid of all of the chunks in one season but you should have plenty of usable material. Sift what you’ve got through a screen of dime-sized holes and put larger pieces back into the pile to decompose more next time.
Most home composters won’t generate enough volume to cover gardens in several inches of organic material. That’s the gold star for our low nutrient soil. However, applying your compost in a targeted fashion can help your plants immensely. Mix in a spade-full (or two) in each hole when you plant your veggies, or add a hefty shovelful to your pots. Your plants will thank you for it!
Compost 301 and higher
You’ll have to do self-guided education, but we’ll offer you some resources. The book that spurred home composting is Let It Rot and is available through a variety of bookstores. It’s easy to read and offers all sorts of information. The good folks at CSU Extension have an on-line article on composting that’s quite helpful and includes a simple chart on addressing common compost issues. Between the two, you’ll be well on your way to creating garden gold!
*We’ve got oodles of pallets free for the taking on the North side of the warehouse, between the warehouse and the tree lot.
A winter's worth of food scraps. It's icky here, but just wait....
"Cooked" compost ready to be sifted.
Chunks that were too large to be sifted. Back to the pile they go!
Wouldn’t it be nice for the Easter Bunny to enjoy spring flowers while hiding eggs in your yard? Lucky for her- and you!- there are hardy flowers that can tolerate frost.
Pansies, snapdragons, dianthus, nemesia and salvia can, if acclimated, survive temperatures dropping to 22 degrees. Have a handy means of covering them the first few nights outside if the forecast is for below freezing temperatures, or for any hefty spring storms that might lurk in our future. It is after all Wyoming, where spring temperatures can swing 50 degrees in less than 24 hours!
There are more annuals to fill out your pots or beds that aren’t quite as hardy, but do tolerate a light frost: petunias, bacopa, osteo’s, and million bells (a.k.a. callies or alohas). With this spread of plants, you can create combinations with a wide variety of colors, heights, textures, and growth patterns.
Want to add more color still? Geraniums can take a very light frost, so if you’re including those in your pots or beds, make sure you have an easy way to cover and protect them against spring’s crazy weather.
Plants to avoid until danger of frost has passed include heat and sun loving flowers like zinnias, marigolds, and moss roses. Hmm, it makes sense that full sun plants don’t do well with sub-freezing temperatures.
There’s no need to purchase new potting soil for your pots each year. Amend it with compost or manure, and add in a hefty dose of time-released fertilizer when you plant, and your plants will be healthy and happy. If the soil has dried out, dump it into a wheelbarrow, break up the clumps, slowly add water until all of the soil is moist. Another soil-saving tip is to place plastic bottles in the bottom to lessen he need for soil, and to make the pot lighter and easier to move. Roots of annuals on reach just a few inches deep, so no need to fill a 14” pot with soil. Yup, it’s odd for a garden center to tell you to not to buy stuff, but the truth is that soil can be reused for quite some time.
In other Easter Bunny beautification tips, now is a good time to trim back perennials. For ground hugging plants like sedum, meadow sage, perennial geraniums and the like, cut old flower stalks back to just above the new green growth. Thicker and woodier stalks will need to be snipped, while thinner stalks can be gently pulled by hand. Last year’s growth around irises and day lilies can also be cleaned up by hand.
Most perennials will show new growth by now, but not all. Plants like Russian sage are notorious late bloomers so wait a couple of weeks before cutting that back. When you do trim, cut back to green bud growth which could be as high as 8” on last year’s stalks. Decorative grasses are also cut 6-8” above the soil surface. Close cropping of grasses can kill the plant.
For you skeptics that don’t believe in the Easter Bunny, it’s still a great time to clean up the yard as Lander’s citywide clean up is next week. Pick up for north side will be Monday, April 21st while south side pick up is Tuesday, April 22nd. Items for pick up must be on the curb, properly prepared: tree limbs must be no longer than 4’ and bundled together no more than 1’ in diameter. All leaves and plant debris must be bagged. Pick up will take place between 7 am and 3 pm.
The weather forecast looks promising for both yard clean up and planting. Finally (FINALLY!) we have the chance to plant flowers. Anyone else have a serious itching to get hands in the dirt?!?!
Geraniums, pansies, bacopa and spikes make for a lovely early season pot of color.
Although still small, the million bells (also known as callies) are starting to flower- yellows, purples, pinks, peach and white colors are available.
Too bad there's not a "scratch and sniff" feature. Not only are pansies lovely, they have a delightful scent!