Monday, September 7, 2009

"The foliage has been losing its freshness

through the month of August,

and here and there a yellow leaf shows itself

like the first gray hair amidst the locks of a beauty

who has seen one season too many."

- Oliver Wendell Holmes

Prepare your Compost Pile Now to Reap the Rewards this Spring

By Renee Brannigan

Compost is one of the most important tools in my garden. From bins and barrels, to heaps and bags, compost piles come in a wide variety of configurations and sizes. Composting is a great way to utilize your kitchen trimmings, garden and yard waste to improve your garden, your family's health, and the environment.

The Wonders of Compost

For those of you new to the wonderful world of composting, compost looks like dirt and is what is left over when organic matter decomposes. Basic composting incorporates just four ingredients: carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and water, with the right conditions (oxygen added by simply turning it over each month, and water from occasional rain) to create a nutrient-rich soil additive that:

  • produces, strong, healthy plants,

  • attracts earthworms,

  • amends soil with beneficial natural organisms

  • provides needed nutrients,

  • lightens heavy soil for better drainage,

  • retains moisture in sandy soils,

  • keeps soil loose enough for tender roots to seek out nutrients.

Gardeners who compost include laissez-fair gardeners (like me) who just keep adding to their pile hoping for some black gold some day, to those impressive individuals who can produce wheel barrows full of compost each year, and who can even recite the ideal percentage of nitrogen vs. carbon (aka C:N ratio, approximately 30:1 – I just had to look it up). The waste we add to our compost piles will decompose on its own, but in a well-managed compost pile, it will happen much faster.

Like every gardener with a compost heap (and every cook with a conscience), I regularly add kitchen scraps, garden and yard waste to our compost pile. This is a “cool compost” pile which will eventually break down, but needs to be turned occasionally to aid decomposition. Our compost pile actually got turned once this year when my dear hubby moved it from the side of the garage to behind the garage. Although the waste in my pile had broken down some, most of it could still be identified...yuck.

Through a little research, I've learned that the contents of my under-performing cool compost pile can be incorporated into a “hot” or “super” compost pile. September is the best time to start a “super compost” compost pile so it can heat up before the cold weather arrives, cook all winter and produce black gold in time for spring gardening

Making a Super or Hot (or Super Hot) Compost Pile

The key to getting your pile hot enough to sustain enough heat through the winter is to make it big enough. The larger the pile, the more heat it will generate as it breaks down. Plan to make it at least 3 feet by 3 feet. When it gets cooking, a hot pile will kill weed seeds and diseases because it reaches higher temperatures (about 160°).


Ideally, a hot compost pile should be located out of drying winter winds. Locate your pile on high ground to avoid stepping in slop when you tend it.

Hot Compost Ingredients:

  • My original compost pile of kitchen scraps, spoiled fruit and veggies, peels, eggshells and coffee grounds, too. (no salt, meats, fats, etc.).

  • A pile of green stuff (nitrogen): spent annuals, overgrown greens, weeds, grass trimmings, everything that has bolted or is past its prime, fresh grass clippings, basically, anything once vegetation that still contains its moisture. Ammonium Nitrate fertilizer can also be used as a nitrogen substitute @ 1 cup per square yard of carbon materials.

  • A pile of brown stuff (carbons): last years' fallen leaves, small sticks, corn cobs (rinsed of salt), manure, woody dry materials such as dry grass clippings, dry leaves, woodchip, sawdust (small amounts), basically, anything that once grew, but is now dried.

    NOTE: AVOID meat scraps, fatty or salted foods, excessive wood ash, sawdust in large quantities. Also, fresh animal manure (from grazing farm animals, not from cats and dogs that are meat eaters) should be allowed to age in the elements, to wash excessive salts and urine from the contents before adding to the compost pile.

    Which reminds me of my dear father's organic garden. Many years he would pick up a barrel or two of manure from a nearby farm, but he would constantly read about and try a variety of organic gardening methods. One year, though, his garden grew better than most. In fact, some of his tomato plants were almost as tall as him...but what a stink when he planted it. That year he followed the lessons taught to the Pilgrims and buried fish scraps from a local seafood store under his crops. Yes, it was a jungle...the tomato plants were over 6 feet tall, but, ahhh, the pungent odor when he brought home the fish!

Bin, barrel, pile or heap?

The structure that supports your pile is up to you. If you have the resources, many fine bins can be purchased in a variety of configurations (round, square, barrels that rotate, etc.) and materials (wood, plastic, metal).

Anything that contains your pile is sufficient. You can simply use untreated/unpainted wood, chicken wire, reinforcing wire or wooden pallets (I use three screwed together in a horseshoe shape). A piece of cardboard or weed block underneath will prevent weeds from growing up through your pile, and your precious nutrients from leaching into the ground below.

Make a garden lasagna...

  1. For your hot compost pile, keep the air moving by starting with a layer of course woody material like woody plants (tomato vines, corn stalks, etc.) small sticks and twigs that will eventually rot, but won't pack down.

  2. Top that with a layer, about a foot thick, of brown ingredients (carbon) topped with some soil.

  3. The third layer is kitchen waste or stuff from your cool compost bin if you have it. But never meat, salt or fats. The ideal percentage of carbons to greens is approximately 30 to 1 carbon-to-nitrogen ratio.

  4. Lightly moisten the layers to speed up the decay. The pile shouldn't be dripping wet, more like a damp towel. I have also read that adding a little beer supplies yeast that will keep the bacteria in your compost pile very happy.

    Water Saving Tip: To conserve water, keep a pitcher near your kitchen sink to collect running water while you are waiting for hot water from the tap. Add some of that water to your compost bucket and use the rest to water your plants. Before bringing my pail of kitchen waste to the garden, I usually pour in enough water so that when I twist the pail, the veggie scraps and coffee grounds are loose and not stuck to the sides. I started doing this so I didn't have to scrape yucky stuff out of the pail, and realized that it's a great way to gradually add water to your compost.

  5. The next layer can be up to 18-inches, of green stuff including.

  6. Repeat layers until either your bin is full or you run out of materials.

  7. Top your pile with a really thick layer of loose straw or fall leaves.

  8. Cover your pile with an opaque tarp, plastic, layers of cardboard or hay bales, since microbes stay active in a warm, moist environment. The cover will minimize drying from winter winds, protect it from too much rain, increase the temperature to kill weed seed and pathogens, and generally speed up the decay process. This winter don't shovel off the snow since it will further insulate your compost pile.

Maintenance: Bring on the heat...if you're into gadgets, a compost thermometer is even available to monitor the baking process. Ideally, you should turn the pile after the temperature has peaked and has begun to cool down. Otherwise, no maintenance is needed for your hot compost pile this winter. I'm more the “set it and forget it” gardener, so I'll just start another pile to dump in my kitchen compost pail.

Is it done yet?

This spring, you'll know your compost is ready to put in your garden when it resembles dark soil and smells like earth. Just mix some into your soil for strong, healthy plants.

TIP: Before adding compost to indoor plants, first sterilize a thin layer of it on a foil covered baking sheet at 200 degrees for about thirty minutes.

With a little preparation now, you can start a super compost pile now that will have time to heat up enough to keep it brewing through the winter using “ingredients” right in your yard. Whether you compost using a bin, barrel, a humble heap; whether it's large or small, you will get the added benefit of knowing that you’re not just adding your yard waste to the growing mass at the Central Landfill. You are actually improving your garden, your family's health, and the environment while creating organically-rich soil.

Whether you make your own, buy it by the bag, or have a truck load dumped in your driveway, adding compost is a great way to give your plants a boost of rich nutrients and improve your soil

There are many ways to create black gold...this is just one method. Share with us how you compost.

"By all these lovely tokens

September days are here,

With summer's best of weather

And autumn's best of cheer."

- Helen Hunt Jackson, September, 1830-1885

Pest of the Month: S L U G S

Although they are slimy and destructive to gardens, slugs are very interesting creatures. The name "slug" is a non-scientific word, for a gastropod mollusc that has no shell (descendants of snails). Slugs are very destructive and can be difficult to control.
  • While they look like they have antennae, most slugs have two pairs of 'feelers' or tentacles on their head; the upper pair being light sensors, while the lower pair provides the sense of smell. Both pairs are retractable and can be regrown if lost.
  • Slugs' bodies are made up mostly of water since they must generate protective mucus to survive. In dry weather slugs will seek shelter in damp places like under tree bark, fallen logs, rocks, wood piles, and planters to retain body moisture.
  • The bottom of a slug is called the "foot". Slugs move by rhythmic waves of muscular contraction on the underside of its foot. It simultaneously secretes a layer of mucus on which it travels, which helps prevent damage to the tissues of the foot. The mucus secreted by the foot contains fibers which help prevent the slug from slipping down vertical surfaces.
  • As a slug moves, it leaves a slime trail which helps other slugs identify them. While useful to find a mate, it is unfortunately how predatory slugs locate other slugs.
  • Some species of slug secrete slime cords to lower themselves onto the ground, or to suspend a pair of slugs during copulation.
  • Different species of slugs have vastly differing diets. Everything from dead leaves, fungus, and decaying vegetable material; to living plants; and and some carnivorous slugs are predators who eat other slugs, snails, or earthworms. Most slugs will on occasion also eat carrion, including other dead slugs.
  • Like snails, slugs macerate food using their radula, a rough, tongue-like organ with many tiny tooth-like denticles.
  • On top of the slug, behind the head, is the saddle-shaped mantle, and under this on the right side are the genital opening and anus, on the other side is a respiratory opening.
  • Some species of slugs hibernate underground during the winter in temperate climates, but in other species, the adults die in the autumn.
  • Since slugs contract their body when attacked (which makes their bodies more compact and harder, making it more difficult to grasp them combined with the slippery mucus provides some protection against predators) use a tool (like tweezers, tongs, or chopsticks) to pick them up.
  • Common Species of land slugs are mildly poisonous, often times after one ingests a land slug no signs of poisoning are seen, but after several hours severe diarrhea, cold sweats, mild headaches, insomnia and dizziness occur. In a few rare cases, humans have contracted parasite-induced meningitis from eating raw slugs.
  • Slugs are hermaphrodites, having both female and male reproductive organs. Once they find a mate, they encircle each other and exchange sperm. A few days later around 30 eggs are laid into a hole in the ground, or beneath the cover of objects such as fallen log.
  • If you have chickens or ducks, you may not see many slugs near your fowl. Frogs, toads, snakes, hedgehogs, Salamanders, eastern box turtles, as well as some birds also enjoy juicy slugs.
  • Slugs lay small masses of eggs in soil cracks. The young slugs that hatch from these eggs travel through the soil and damage germinating seeds and root crops. Eggs hatch in 2 to 4 weeks. Slugs grow for 5 months up to 2 years before reaching maturity
  • Deter slugs by reducing the humidity in your garden by using drip irrigation or soaker lines. Overhead irrigation should be done early in the day to allow more time for leaves and soil to dry before the nightly activity of slugs.
  • Attract slugs to your bait using a trap boards or moistened newspaper placed on the soil surface. Check the shelters every morning and kill any slugs found. When not regularly maintained, remove the traps.
  • To Trap Slugs bait them with fermenting materials like beer or sugar-water and yeast mixtures which can effectively attract, trap and drown slugs. The range of such traps is only a few feet, so place many around problem areas to significantly reduce slug populations. Slugs normally feed at night, so baits should be applied around dusk in moist areas. Put the bait in a deep container buried up to the rim in the ground so that the pests can't climb out and will drown.
  • If they didn't drown in your bait, you'll need to kill them somehow. Try a homemade solution of household ammonia mixed with water (4 to 1). It will quickly kill the slugs. If you spray your plants with it, they'll love the nitrogen boost. NEVER MIX AMMONIA with bleach!
  • Effective Repellents and Barriers that slugs won't travel over include acid, alkali or abrasive materials like diatomaceous earth, wood ashes and similar materials placed around plants provide some protection unless they get wet.
  • Salt is so toxic to slugs that putting table salt on a slug can kill it. We don't recommend this technique since too much salt may kill your plants.
  • Certain metal ions also are highly repellent to slugs. Barriers of copper foil exclude slugs from greenhouse benches and raised bed plantings. Other copper-based materials, such as copper sulfate, repel slugs.
  • Molluscicides are pesticides effective against slugs and snails. Slugs are not susceptible to poisoning by most insecticides. NOTE: Metaldehyde is the most commonly used and effective molluscicide. It is sold often in the form of granular baits (Bug-Geta, etc.) or as a paste or gel (Deadline, etc.). Do not apply Metaldehyde to vegetables and edible crops. CAUTION: Metaldehyde, like antifreeze, is attractive to and hazardous to dogs.
Alternative baits use the active ingredient includes iron phosphate (ferric phosphate) and is in products like Sluggo, Slug Magic and Escar-Go!among others. NOTE: Iron phosphate products can be used around edible crops and do not pose special hazards to dogs.

"Our fear of death

is like our fear

that summer will be short,

but when we have had

our swing of pleasure,

our fill of fruit,

and our swelter of heat,

we say we have had our day."

- John Donne, 1620

Plant of the Month: Joe Pye Weed...

...not a weed at all.

Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium) is more likely recognized along roadsides than in gardens.
  • Joe Pye Weed is not a weed at all, it is a native American herb/wildflower cultivated as an ornamental in English cottage gardens. It's a perennial that spreads by sending out horizontal underground stems (rhizomes) that can be divided every 2 years.
  • It is named after Native American herbalist, Joe-Pye, who according to legend, used it to cure fevers.
  • The easily recognizable flowers of Joe Pye Weed range in color from its native color of dusty pink to cultivated colors of white, lavender, wine and dark purple. The extra large flower heads average 5”, and can reach 8” and contains clusters of up to 22 tubular flowers.
  • The blooms open in July and continue to look great until hard frost, when they age to bronze that will last all winter. They make lovely cut flowers that can be dried. Each bloom also produces many, many seeds.
  • Joe Pye's large blooms are loaded with nectar and pollen that attract bees, birds and butterflies including Eastern Tiger Swallowtail and Monarch.
  • It grows best in moist areas (along riverbanks), but it will adapt to a dryer location. Likes a sunny location in fertile soil. It has hollow stalks which may need protection from strong winds. It staked early, it is easier to keep stalks upright, or pinch back Joe-Pye in the early summer to keep them more compact.
  • Joe Pye Weed is a vigorous grower that will try to grow taller than surrounding plants, with some varieties growing up to 10 feet tall. Choose your location carefully for this fast-growing plant as it may overtake other plants in your garden. Woodbridge Greenhouses has in stock a beautiful dwarf variety called "Little Joe" that grows to just four feet tall.

"By all these lovely tokens

September days are here

With summer's best of weather

And autumn's best of cheer."

- Author Unknown