The problem with composting is that it is so misunderstood that homeowners and dedicated gardeners shy away from it.
The truth is that people in rural areas nationwide have been composting of necessity for decades, in the septic tank of all places, so above-the-ground composting really is not as complicated as friends and neighbors make it out to be. As indicated in last week's column, exorbitant charges loom next year for homeowners who routinely put their grass clippings out with the trash, leaves and such. Therefore October is a good time to consider launching your first compost pile.
Basic organic materials from the garden will go into the pile, mainly grass clippings, fallen leaves, even weeds pulled from the soil as long as they have not gone to seed. In this case, dispose of seed-bearing weeds in the trash can. Cut-up branches and limbs can be used as long as they are pencil-thin or smaller.
Even with other organic waste, the list of materials which can be added to the pile is substantial.
Here is an incomplete list of materials to consider: all trimmings from vegetables (such as potato and carrot skins), tea bags, coffee grounds, corncobs, spoiled fruit, bananas and citrus residue of any kind, bread and bread crumbs, clam-oyster and egg shells, peanut husks, fireplace ashes, shredded newspaper, dead plants, corn stalks, manure from cattle and horses, fish scraps, hair from pets, seaweed, wood chips, even vegetable waste from grocery stores and supermarkets. If you want, kitchen waste -- but no meat or poultry -- can be strewed in the compost heap as well.
The smaller the organic matter, the faster it will decay, therefore a garden shredder will optimize and accelerate the conversion of organic waste to rich humus which can be used everywhere in the garden. Composting large oak and tulip tree leaves, banana and orange skins is ordinarily a winter-long process, but the transformation takes less than three months when you pass the waste through the shredder. If you do not now own a shredder, it should be given serious consideration when the family shops for Christmas.
Nitrogen, oxygen, heat, moisture and a relatively high carbon-nitrogen (CN) ratio are needed in the compost pile, but other lesser important products bear heavily on the success of composting. Adding fresh manure to the pile is a priority, as is working in enough pulverized dolomitic lime to raise the pH of decaying materials.
Why fresh manure? Not only does it bring millions of bacteria to the pile, all needed to accelerate decay, but also substantial concentrations of nitrogen, potash and phosphoric acid. Despite your disinterest in using fresh manure, don't forget the chelating effect of cow manure on phosphorus, which triggers unbelievable growth of plants exposed to the chelated phosphorus. Country farms usually have copious amounts of fresh cow manure available to gardeners.
If you trek to rural farms for fresh cow manure, bring a good size shovel, multiple heavy-duty plastic trash can liners, and boots for your shoes. Fill only one-third of each bag, otherwise the weight will break the bag. Before stashing bags in the trunk, scatter a shovel of 0-20-0 superphosphate (or 0-30-0 double superphosphate, or 0-45-0 triple superphosphate) over the cow manure to fix the nitrogen. Other manures are fine, but horse manure contains excessive weed seeds.
Total composting is quick and easy over the spring and summer when temperatures border on the tropical, but not so over the winter when it is nearly impossible to maintain high temperatures needed for bacterial decay. However, don't let this stifle you in the least. There are easy and proven ways of "keeping a compost pile cooking" in winter, in which case you would rely on inorganic 5-10-5 fertilizer to supply the heat. Pure organic gardeners prefer not to use man-made fertilizers to supply winter heat in piles, therefore they target their composting at other times of the year. However, with restrictions likely on pickup of garden waste, organic gardeners will probably compost the year-round and might want to experiment with a winter pile right now.
Across the farm belt, "yeast once a week" is the rule to keep septic tanks performing to optimum levels. Yeast contains millions of microorganisms that attack organic waste in the tank, resulting in little or no accumulation of solid matter in the tank itself. Liquids leach into the septic fields the year-round, but no solids as long as the tank is functioning properly.
Over the past decade, a host of "activators" have been developed to provide a fairly constant population of bacteria in the tank, also to provide microorganisms for composting. You can avail yourself of these activators for any kind of composting, but plain granular kitchen yeast will work, too.
You can compost in just about anything: barrels, drums, pits, bins, cages and pens. You can fashion a bin of cinder block, fencing, lumber, laminated plastic and plywood. While we seldom plan things as well as we should, we remind you at the start to provide for easy access; you will want to add waste foodstuffs to the pile over the winter, but you may be discouraged if you have to walk too far in the process.
While rural homeowners will always have unexpected animal visitors, you can plan ahead for this, too. Animal repellents (Ropel and others) are equal to the task when applied near the composting site.
Other priorities for the weekend garden:
Fall weeds have surfaced, so be on the lookout for betony, chickweed, henbit and speedwell. These seeds will sprout through mid-March of next year while the duration of night is longer than the day. These weeds are called "long night" plants as far as germination goes.
On new and established lawns, do not make any effort to attack these weeds just yet; on newly seeded lawns, any weed-killer application now would destroy the turf grass. For now, continue your regular fall management program of cutting high and alternating the direction at which the lawn is cut each week. Bag grass clippings from here on, storing them temporarily in trash can liners until you embark on a compost pile next weekend. By so doing, you will have the option of a light over-seeding in early January (buy your seed now) because the lawn surface will be clean.
As for the new weeds, you will put them away in mid- to late-November. If you applied Gallery back in late July or by Labor Day, you shouldn't have any fall weeds showing now.
Incidentally, "chickweed and clover" weed-killer products are soon to go off the retail shelf, so if you have traditionally been bothered by the weeds, invest in a few bottles of these products now before the supply is gone.
Shepherd chrysanthemums carefully. Potted mums need lightly moist soil, so outdoor pots need daily watering, indoor plants every few days in a bright, sunny room. Pinch withered blossoms to keep plants bushy. If you should move potted mums indoors for any reason, spray the plant thoroughly to chase whiteflies first. With in-ground mums outdoors, a spray of Resmethrin in water will keep whiteflies under control. Next year, you will want to defer to Tempo 2 to keep mums free of whiteflies all year.
If you lost an evergreen tree over the summer to spider mites, don't be in a rush to dig up this "tombstone." Let it be for the time being. Come early December, you will work a miracle so the tree "lives again," albeit temporarily.
Jack Eden is the host of "Over the Garden Fence" Sundays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on WTOP Radio (1500 AM).