Thursday, June 24, 2010

Fertilizer Friday -- Composting VI - Using Compost

It's Friday, and that means a visit to Fertilizer Friday over at Tootsie Time.
Check out her blog party and see what other people have blooming in their gardens.

This is number six in my series about compost, you can read the others here:
A step by step tutorial for the beginning composter.

Composting I -What is Compost?

Composting II -Getting Started

Composting III -What to Compost

Composting IV -pH

Composting V -Aerobic vs Anaerobic

Composting Q & A

I want to talk just a little bit about how to use compost, but before I do, I have to share a quick personal experience with the garden.

This was one of those, I knew better but did it anyway moments.

This spring, I was getting the ground ready for our flowerbed. I had been to a plant swap and had a whole truckload of new plants to put in, none of which cost me anything except for some time.

This flowerbed has some history. The last few years, at the end of the season, we have dumped all the planters and pots that we had everywhere, onto this bed. Then we bought a few chrysanthemums, and prettied it up for fall.

Last spring, when it was time to plant, I decided that the progressive dumping and adding to this bed had raised the soil level too high, all the water was running out when I tried to water it, so I took about 6” of dirt off the top of the bed, and used it around the yard to fill in some low spots. And to fill in where we had taken some patio blocks out.

It didn’t occur to me until halfway through the season, when the flowers were all looking sick and wimpy, that I had taken the best soil from the bed and left the clay and depleted soil below.

So this year, I wanted to make sure and add something to the soil, to break it up a little and revitalize the soil.

I didn’t have any compost ready yet, but I knew, from research, that rabbit manure could be added directly to the garden without being composted first, and it will not damage the plants.

I had been picking up the used bedding from the pet store, and had a big bag of it in the back of my truck, ready to go dump on the compost pile.

Great, I thought to myself, (without really thinking it through, of course,) I can just use that.

So, I added it to the flowerbed, and took a shovel and dug it in nicely, then I added a bit more rabbit manure that I had left in the truck, and planted the plants. I watered them well, and left them to take root. I wanted to see how they did before we filled in the spaces between them with some annuals, and mulched around them.

At this point, everyone but me should be grinning, and smirking, knowing what would happen next.

When the pet store cleans out their cages, they scoop everything into a bag. All the used bedding from the rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters and bird cages, all goes into the bag.

You guessed it, all that uneaten birdseed, all the seeds and corn kernels, grains and good things that are in the rodent food, all of that, when mixed with a nice blend of rabbit manure and soil, and watered generously and left in the sun began to grow!

Not just grow, but absolutely flourish! I had provided optimum growing conditions for them, and they were taking advantage of that.

For the next week, every day I pulled and plucked and weeded. I took them out by the handful. Finally, when we got some annuals, and got them planted, I put down a layer of newspaper and covered it with mulch. That seemed to control most of them. But I just noticed today that I have, not one, not two, but three corn plants growing in that garden. I may just leave them, there is no law against having a few stalks of corn in the flower bed is there?

One of them is over a foot tall. To manage to get that big without getting pulled took some clever growing. It was hiding in a day lily, and at first it sort of looked like day lily leaves.

So, the lesson I learned was: Never use compost, until it has had a chance to break down properly.
A few months in the compost bin would have saved me all sorts of time, effort and work, not to mention frustration, aggravation and self flagellation.

This goes back to the TIME part of FAT TOM. Compost requires time, and if we try to rush things or skip steps, it very seldom results in saving us time.

Your compost will be ready when it is black and crumbly, looks like dirt, and you don’t recognize any of the stuff that you put into the pile in the first place. It may have small twigs or sticks in it, in some cases, depending on how you are using it, you can screen these out.

There is an excellent tutorial for building a compost screen that you can find here.

One person who built one, suggested that you alter the measurements to make it a custom fit for your own wheel barrow, and that you add a strip of wood underneath on each side to create a lip so it stays in place.

This is a project I hope to build this year, as soon as all the vital stuff is done and I have some play time.

So, now you have a huge pile of fully composted and screened compost and you are wondering what to do with it?

Well, lets explore some ideas.

But first let me take a minute to debunk a commonly held myth.

Many people believe that compost is a fertilizer, and that when you add compost to your garden you are adding nutrients to the soil. This myth is hard to completely debunk, because like many myths it has a small element of truth in it. Compost has a small amount of nutrients in it, that will be released into the garden over a long period of time.

So, why do we add it, if it isn’t full of nutrients?

Compost improves soils structure, adds beneficial microbes and increases the ability of the soil to retain nutrients. It improves the mobility of air, water and nutrients in the soil, allowing plants in your garden to make better use of the nutrients that are available.

So, now that we know that, how do we use it?

In a new garden, compost can be placed directly on top of the soil and then worked in with a tiller, to a depth of about 6”. A recommended amount to use on a new garden is about 4-6”. Then each year, before planting add another 2-4” and work it in with the tiller.

For pots, and containers use about 1 part compost to 3 parts soil, (By volume) mixing well.
Some people recommend using compost as a garden mulch, and you certainly can, but in my personal opinion, unless you have an abundance of compost, this is not necessarily the most efficient way to use your compost.

There are less valuable mulches available, that way you can save your compost for where it will do the most good. However, using a bit around the trunk of a tree, as a mulch is not a bad idea, since you will not be digging the tree and tilling that soil every year. Just don’t pile the compost directly up against the tree trunk, or you may find yourself inadvertently composting a tree.

About ½” to 1” of compost raked into your lawn as a top dressing will slowly work its way down to the roots of the grass, allowing for the same benefits under the grass that it provides in the vegetable garden.

One popular use of compost is brewing compost tea. This is not quite the same as Earl Gray or Orange Pekoe, and I wouldn’t get out your fine china for this one. Put a large shovelful or two of compost in a burlap sack, and set it in a five gallon bucket. Fill the bucket almost to the top with water and let it sit in the sun for about a week. You can lift and dunk it every couple of days if you want, to aerate it a bit..

When you lift the bag out, you will have liquid, rich with microorganisms, good for watering plants, or for spraying directly on the foliage. This should be roughly the color of iced tea. If it is much darker you may want to consider diluting a bit.

And now, to flaunt our flowers...

Here is what the flower bed looked like before we started anything this year, after a disappointing season last year.

Here is what it looked like after I planted the plants from the plant swap.

right after we got the mulch down.

And this is what it looks like this week. It is kind of a side view, but it shows the progress.

Those of you who read Dianns blog will recognize the gardener, she loves that sprayer!

Be sure and join me each Tuesday for Tuesday Trivia Tie-in, where readers are invited to share trivia and show off their treasures.

Read all about it here


  1. I am book marking your post so I can go back and take a good read. Compost is so easy to do yet, I don't. Not sure why - maybe just to lazy but the benefits - WOW! Thanks for all the info.

  2. I love your blog and I really love this post. I think you have some wonderful things here that could benefit a great many people and their families, and I intend to be one of them. Thanks so much for working on this and bringing it to the world out here.


  3. Wonderful primer on compost! And I love the 2-year old watering helper. :-)

    I used to make compost at our former home, but have not gotten into the groove here -- and I know I should. It's the simplest process, and yields so many benefits!

    My grandmother grew the most amazing vegetables in a small plot behind her kitchen, and her idea of "fertilizer" was to bury the fish skins and bones left after meals, right next to the tomato rows. Deep enough, so that her cat couldn't get to them. I haven't tried this method, but it sure worked for Gran!

    Happy Fertilizer Friday.

  4. Troy, are you Diann's hubby? I just saw that precious gardener in her post. Thanks for all the info about composting. As my tiny trees grow bigger, I definitely plan on composting.

  5. Love the composting primer. Scares me though that if you can make an oops what the heck can I do??? lol. Live and learn eh

  6. I was just thinking, I've seen this cutie before! Thanks for all the info and your experience.

  7. Troy I love the story and hope the corn is good! How funny and a lesson learned. I am still waiting for the book form of these composting posts. Oh and the little helper is too cute (as you well know)!

  8. Oh TROY!!! I once went to the local landfill and purchased some of their compost. I got a full truck load...went home and worked my a$$ off to load it all into my beds...Two weeks later I had planted my flowers and could not find them for all the weeds!!! I know exactly how you feel!
    I also have a weed issue this year...due to the excessive amount of bird feeders in the yard next door...ugh. I am loading garbage cans full of chick weed among others to the back alley from each bed...I am almost done the back the front and I am not sure I will be able to salvage the lobelia the chick weed looks just the same sometimes!
    I think your current state of that bed is just beautiful and I am so happy that you got a happy ending...
    as for the loofa you asked after...I suppose it is long over due for a loofa next week I will's not pretty forewarned!
    thanks for linking in friend...again...a great post and wonderful flaunt!