Leaves are covering the yards, the garden plants are slowly (or, if a freeze, quickly) dying, and the squirrel-mutilated faces on pumpkins are moldering across front porches everywhere. It’s the perfect time to start your garden compost pile!
Composting is an age-old practice to conserve the nutrients that nature provides. Normally, trees, shrubs and grasses shed their leaves, which become food for them over the following year as they decompose. Annual vegetation also dies back, at least to the ground, and rots in place, putting nutrients back into the soil.
Humans aren’t usually very helpful in these cycles. We rake, fertilize and groom our lawns and gardens, disrupting the natural cycles. But we could restore some of the balance and save ourselves some expense at the same time.
Fallen leaves provide a cover for worms and various useful insects that helps them survive the winter, so it is better to avoid raking your flower or garden beds until spring. Raking and mowing the lawns improves their aesthetics but produces a mass of nutrient-filled materials that should be recycled. Hence the need to compost.
Of course, even before Halloween came to a close, your pumpkin carving and cooking had produced piles of goop excellent for composting. All those squishy seeds and strings and rinds aren’t just great for teasing your little sister with, but are loaded with the promise of future life. In fact, this summer my compost pile sprouted several large vines that produced small ornamental pumpkins and a butternut squash. It’s not uncommon to find volunteer tomatoes or other veggies in the garden in early spring. That energy and the nutrients can be captured and recycled by composting.
Experts can provide you with tons of information about the process of composting. Moisture balance, size reduction, heat, aeration, layering materials of different nitrogen content — it can all be very scientific and precise to achieve excellent results.
However, I’ve never been that precise. I’ve read quite a bit of the advice, and I follow some of it, but composting doesn’t have to be complicated. Find a relatively undisturbed place in your yard — not too inaccessible. Then just pile up your leaves, dead plants, non-meat and non-dairy kitchen waste, and all your pumpkin guts and moldy remains in that spot. It’s good if you water it occasionally and stir it up often, but those activities only speed up the process. Over time, nature will decompose everything in the pile, regardless of what you do.
Yes, nature’s critters also like your leavings, and I find that often they help stir up the pile, but can scatter debris across the yard. Gooey stuff on the surface will attract bugs, so I cover up anything new with old dry stuff as I add to it during the year. I suppose some items could smell when decomposing (I’ve not noticed that), so it might be nice to avoid putting it adjacent to your neighbor’s window.
Depending on your level of activity in watering and stirring the pile, by spring some portion of the pile will be ready to harvest. Breaking the pile open and sorting the still-recognizable plant debris from the gooey black soil is in some ways like opening presents on Christmas morning. What a bounty of lush new soil you have created!
All that’s needed now is to place the new soil across your garden, and push the undecomposed material back into a pile as a start for your next year’s process. Throughout the summer, add grass clippings plus garden and kitchen waste, then in the fall, add the newly-raked leaves and any discarded jack-o-lanterns you can scavenge from your neighbor’s porches, and you’re composting, baby!
We humans have done a lot to disrupt the basic cycles of nature, often in our poor attempts to ‘improve’ things. But composting really gets you back into your yard’s natural rhythms.
If only it were that simple with all our other impacts on nature.
Steve Tarlton, Embracing Rot, 9/20/21, Writes of Nature
Elizabeth Waddington, Which Type of Composting Is Right for You?, October 7, 2021, TreeHugger