By Mary Miller
Compost is the “return of organic materials to a rich, stable, humus-like material through a managed oxidative decomposition process mediated by microbe metabolism.” I like to think of my compost system as a kitchen dedicated to cooking comfort food for Mother Earth. Following a basic recipe, I add the best ingredients, water, and oxygen and let the concoction simmer. I manage a very efficient kitchen crew of micro-organisms, bugs, and worms who work day and night to process the various elements into a luscious and loamy treat for my garden plants.
Here in the mountains of western North Carolina, many of us have to deal with clay soil, which is not the best for most plants. Composting allows us to turn waste materials into valuable resources. For gardeners, perhaps the most important benefit of composting is loamy and fertile soil. Compost feeds the earth, which in turn feeds the plants.
Another vital benefit of composting is environmental. Disposed food waste at landfills contributes to climate change by releasing methane (a potent greenhouse gas), into the atmosphere. Since pre-industrial times, methane concentrations in the atmosphere have more than doubled, mainly due to human-related activities. Achieving significant reductions would have a rapid and significant effect on atmospheric warming potential. Diversion of food scraps to create compost reduces methane gas emissions considerably. Another benefit is the reduction of waste sent to the landfill. Transylvania County’s landfill is rapidly approaching capacity; diverting food scraps will help extend its useful life span. If you are convinced that composting is worthwhile and are in a position to compost at home, read on for some practical tips for success.
Returning to the kitchen analogy, using a recipe for your compost is very helpful. The essential ingredients, or feedstocks, are carbon (browns) and nitrogen (greens), in approximately a three-to-one ratio, as well as water. I have access to an abundance of fall leaves (browns) at my home in Pisgah Forest. Shredding the leaves facilitates the process; whole leaves tend to wad together and slow things down. As I add kitchen scraps (greens), I ensure they are covered by two or three times the volume of leaves. People sometimes worry that backyard composting will attract unwanted wildlife. You can mitigate this by always covering all food scraps with brown materials.
A common composting strategy is to use a four-bin system to collect materials, cook the compost and store the end product. In bin one, the collection bin, your goal is to amass a pile of at least 3 feet by 3 feet. These dimensions will allow for the optimum conditions for decomposition: a warm, moist environment in which the compost kitchen crew (introduced at the beginning of this article) can work efficiently. After the pile collects enough material, turn it into bin two to start the cooking phase. The contents of bin two will be transferred (turned) into bin three, and vice versa, weekly for two to three months. When the compost is ready, it is stored in bin four for use in the garden. An alternative to the four-bin system is to build a pile and simply let it sit on the ground or in a container. This approach could take a year or longer before you have usable compost.
As the crew manager, your job will be to turn and water the pile every week or two. Frequent turning adds essential oxygen to the mix and speeds the process. I have found that if I follow these basic guidelines, the result will be beautiful compost within about three months. Inevitably, some materials need to decompose longer, and you can filter out these with a compost sieve and toss them back into the active pile.
I love composting because it allows me to do my little bit to combat climate change and nourish my garden simultaneously. It is a visual reminder of the circle of life as I witness the soil/food cycle in action. Watching seemingly dead materials come back to life is a beautiful experience. If you decide to jump on the composting bandwagon, follow the guidelines I have outlined and learn as you go. Don’t make yourself crazy worrying about proportions, temperatures, water, and turning schedules. You will quickly get a sense of what works best for you.
What goes into the compost pile?
•Yes: Remember that all food scraps must be covered with a layer of browns to control odor and critters; chopped food scraps (fruits and vegetables), labels removed; coffee grinds and filters; untreated garden waste (no herbicides or pesticides); grass clippings (if not treated with herbicides or pesticides); leaves and wood chips; crushed eggshells; shredded non-glossy paper/newspaper; sticks/twigs (no wider than a pencil); and tea bags (no staples or synthetic fibers.
•Never. These things will contaminate the compost with pathogens, generate foul odors, and attract unwanted critters: oils; meats; grass clippings that have been treated with herbicides or pesticides; fish, dairy products; whole or cooked eggs; weeds; plastic of any kind; florist flowers; uncooked rice or other grains
Gardening tips for July
•Continue side dressing your garden vegetables.
•Apply the last dose of fertilizer to landscape plants. Do not fertilize landscape plants after mid-July as lush new growth may not have time to harden off before freezing weather arrives.
•Take soil samples from your lawn areas for testing to be ready for fall fertilization and seeding.
•Soil boxes are available at the County Extension Center.
•Set out plants of Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, pepper, eggplant and tomato in mid-July.
•Begin your fall vegetable garden this month. Plant bean, beet, carrot, cucumber, leaf lettuce, head lettuce, mustard, rutabaga, summer squash and turnip seeds. Start broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower plants in peat pots to transplant into the vegetable garden mid-month.
•Re-pot overgrown house- plants.
•Prune “bleeder” trees including maple, dogwood, birch and elm.
•Prune the fruiting canes of raspberry and blackberry plants after harvest is over. Cut canes at ground level and destroy.
•Prune off dieback limbs on hybrid rhododendron, azalea, mountain laurel and blueberry.
•Pinch old blossoms off of rhododendron.
•Remove browned foliage from spring blooming bulbs.
•Trim hedges as needed.
•Continue pruning white pines and narrow leaf evergreens such as juniper early in the month.
•Remove faded flowers on perennials to encourage a second flush of flowers.
•Pinch your chrysanthemums the first week only!
•Do not prune spring flowering shrubs after July 4th.
Managing Pests and Diseases:
•Monitor for insects and if needed, spray the following landscape shrubs for the following insect pests: arborvitae (bagworms), azalea and Pyracantha (lace bug)
•Spray for Japanese beetles as needed.
•Continue with rose spray program.
•Spray your tree fruits and bunch grapes according to your spray plan.
•Spray vegetables with fungicide if signs of fungus are present.
•Monitor for insects and if needed, spray the following vegetables if insects are observed: cucumber (cucumber beetle), squash (aphids), tomato and eggplant (flea beetle).
•Spray woody weeds including poison ivy, honeysuckle and kudzu with a recommended herbicide.
•Watch for white fly and spray with insecticidal soap or summer oil if needed.
•Control aphids by washing them off with a blast of water from the hose. You can also spray with insecticidal soap or horticultural oil if needed.
•Remember to change direction when mowing your lawn. Travel north to south on one mowing and east to west on the next cutting.
•Continue feeding your zoysia lawn with fertilizer. Do not fertilize tall fescue or bluegrass lawns this month.
•Maintain 3-inch mowing height on cool season grasses.
•Continue to take semi- hardwood cuttings of azaleas, holly, rhododendron, and many other shrubs.
•Divide and transplant your iris and daylilies after they finish flowering.
Miscellaneous To Do:
•July is a good month to see if and where your home can use some additional shade trees and make notes for fall planting.
•Blossom-end rot may be seen on tomatoes this month. You can try a blossom end rot spray to help fruit that has not been affected. Consistent watering and adding lime may also help.
•In dry weather, both your vegetable garden and landscape plants will benefit from a deep soaking. Slow watering will penetrate the root zone better. Apply 1” of water early in the day.
•Weed in cloudy weather or in the cool of the evening. Disturbed plants need time to adjust before being in the hot sun.
•Start planning fall bulb purchases for October planting.
Plants in Bloom in July: Sourwood, Crape myrtle, Stewartia, Chaste-Tree, St. John’s Wort, Abelia, Peegee Hydrangea, Rose-of-Sharon, Trumpet Creeper, Phlox, Butterfly Weed, Daylily, Red Hot Poker, Canna, Dahlia, Daisy, Summer annuals
Mary Miller is a Transylvania Extension master gardener