Originally Published: October 30, 2004 7 a.m.
This week's garden class will be on composting here at the garden center, so I thought the topic appropriate for this week's column. The timing is certainly right for composting. I've noticed over the years that the lawn always looks best in the fall. Add a little lawn food to the grass this time of year and you'll find it grows so thick that few weeds are willing to grow in such an actively growing lawn. The negative is, you'll have to mow, providing ample composting opportunities.
Leaves blow through a garden center this time of year in small drifts. Every storm provides another opportunity to fill up the dumpster again. Owning a local garden center in town, the fall drives me crazy. I love to have all the aisles wept and tidy, but the leaves are coming down so quickly. By the time you're done raking a part of the nursery you can hardly tell you had raked.
Sales of trees in the fall are off the charts. Everyone's wanting their little piece of fall color planted in their own yard. OK, so I do like the sales made in fall, and it does make up for all the raking we do at the garden center. All kidding aside, fall is the absolutely the best time you could be planting trees and shrubs.
If you are one that loves fall colors as much as I do, but don't like the thought of yard work and raking, here is a general observation I've made here in the mountains of Arizona. Buy a tree that has great fall color, but has small leaves. You'll be able to enjoy the magnificent fall color change, and many of the leaves blow away with the next wind storm.
Trees such as ash and locust have great fall color and aren't a mess in the fall. Flowering ornamental trees such as Bradford pear, crabapples, and purple leaf plums have a wonderful flowering period in the spring and show off their colors again in the fall. Very little raking is necessary. The few leaves you do pick up provide a wonderful composting opportunity.
There are few individuals who know compost in the tri-cities like Karl Parker, owner of Thoroughbred Enterprises. He's the guy that hauls the manure off the racetracks here in Yavapai County. I asked him his thoughts on compost and to share some of his experience. Here's what he had to offer.
Karl told me to just tell you to keep is simple. Make the pile at least 3-feet by 3-feet and a little bigger is possible. "It's gonna shrink as the process goes on. Too small a pile is the first invitation to failure. Just piling the stuff to be composted on the ground works well."
Another good way is to make a series of three sided bunkers, that way when you turn the pile just pitchfork it from one bunker to the next. Discarded pallets with chicken wire or hardware cloth work well for this.
There are many books available on the subject to get started, but "just doing it" is still the best teacher. The basic thing to know is it's the activity of aerobic micro-organisms that produce compost. Like all living things these microbes need food, water and oxygen to grow and multiply.
When building a pile you need three parts carbon-rich materials like dead leaves, wood chips, sawdust, straw or dried grass. One part nitrogen-rich material like grass clippings, fruit and vegetable scraps and manure are also necessary.
Make thin layers of different materials as you build the pile, wetting them as you go. Chopping up the mix first will speed the process. A lawn mower will chop things nicely. However, making the mix too fine will cause it to pack down and not allow air to get in.
The micro-organisms necessary to do the work are found in overwhelming numbers in manure – nothing will get things cooking faster. A light sprinkle of garden soil from time to time helps. Do not use manure from pets, and do not use meat, fat or bones. Although these will break down, they invite unwanted pests and diseases.
Only a professional composter would know the percentage of moisture needed to break down compost, but Karl said the ideal moisture is at 55 percent, like a wrung- out sponge. If you squeeze, it should feel wet, but no water dripping out. If it's too wet the material will simply rot and give off a foul odor.
Aerate the compost by turning the pile with a pitchfork as often as every three days or as little as 14. It's all trial and error with nothing set in stone. Compost can be used in as little as three weeks.
I believed it all except the three weeks part, although Karl is a professional composter and that's probably realistic for him. I've found it takes three months if you keep the pile moist. If you never turn the pile it may take as long as three years. You'll know it's ready because the compost will be a dark brown like coffee ground color.
If you want to break compost down faster, especially during cold weather, work a compost activator into the pile. A really good one is called ComPro Compost Activator by Grow More. It's sold at garden centers and at the box stores.
If you just don't want to bother with composting, but believe in the benefits of good compost in the garden call Karl Parker at 928-899-5238. He has some of the nicest compost in the area. Use his stuff generously in the garden.
Compost matter puts nutrients back into the soil. Finished humus will balance soil alkalinity by bringing the pH within the 6.5 to 7.5 range preferred by most plants.
Humus can also provide needed moisture and air by loosening tight, compact soil. Your plants will become healthier and more insect resistant while attracting earthworms, which help in any garden.
A good compost works wonders for any garden as a soil additive. As a fertilizer, compost will slowly leach nutrients into the ground. Compost can also be used as mulch around plants or worked directly into the soil of flowerbeds, vegetable gardens and landscape areas.
That's what I could get on composting. I can't believe where the season has gone. Just next weekend I'll be hosting our 25th annual Christmas Shop open house. We convert the inside of our store to a Christmas shop with thousands of holiday ornaments and gift ideas for the holiday season. It's that time.
I've been working frantically on scheduling two truckloads of cut Christmas trees into the store. Cut trees are a logistical nightmare because everyone in the country wants their trees in the same week. The first load will be here in less than a month.
Enjoy Halloween, because retailers all over the city are converting departments to holiday, and Christmas music will be playing the day after. May I be the first to wish you and yours an early "Merry Christmas." I have my Santa hat dusted off and ready to put on... HO – HO – HO.
Until next week, I'll see you in the garden center or is it a Christmas shop?
Ken Lain is the owner of Watters Home and Garden Center and is an Arizona Certified Nursery Professional and Master Gardener.