BOULDER – It was one heck of a season, one that seemed to go on endlessly. As November neared we all thought it would be over with soon and we could send the accumulated waste where it belongs: the compost pile. Now we’re left picking up the pieces of a fall that’s lingered too long.
If recent frosts have left you with a pile of dead plants and leaves, you’re ripe for one of the best ways to recycle your plants into amendment for your soil. Through the miracle of rotting, those decaying plants are converted to an organic material that holds water and nutrients for roots to take up.
So grab a rake, pick up those rotting vegetables, and pull up those plants; November is the month to celebrate composting. Here are few quick and easy tips for getting started.
Select an out of the way area at least three-feet by three-feet wide. To keep the pile warmer in winter, a sunny location is best. Gather up green and brown plant material, making sure you have twice as much brown as green. Fresh, green plant parts provide nitrogen to the pile; dry brown material supplies carbon.
Microorganisms need both to turn your garden waste into gold for the soil.
Avoid resinous wood such as junipers, pine, or spruce; resin keeps the plants from decomposing, increasing the time needed for composting to two to three times as long. Some deciduous tree leaves also take longer, so gardeners wanting a quick batch of compost should use oak or cottonwood sparingly in their piles, chopping them finely before adding.
Black walnut leaves should not be added to the compost due to juglone, a toxin produced by the tree to prevent other plants from growing nearby. Although the compost process destroys most of the juglone found in the leaves, some plants are very sensitive to it and can be harmed by the compost.
Weeds with seeds and diseased plants should be disposed of in another way; most backyard compost piles don’t get hot enough to kill the seeds or disease. If you want to compost weeds, clip the seed heads off before tossing the plant on the pile.
Kitchen scraps are good additions to the compost, but not meat, bones, grease, eggs and dairy products that attract animals and insects. Dog, cat, and human manures should never be added to compost.
For faster composting, chop woody branches, sunflower stems or corn stalks into small chunks before mixing them into the pile. Leave tree leaves whole so they don’t compact down and smother the pile.
Layer brown and green material into a pile, adding water with each layer until the pile feels damp, like a sponge. If the pile is soggy to soaking, add more material in until it dries a little.
There is no need for soil or compost starter to be added to the pile, since the microorganisms that break down materials is found on the surface of most plant material. Compost should heat up within a week and be very warm to the touch. Once it begins to cool, turn it from the outside in and sprinkle with more water to recharge the pile.
When the compost no longer heats up after turning, looks like crumbled humus and has an earthy smell, it’s ready to be added to your soil. A healthy compost pile won’t smell or attract nuisance animals to your yard.
Help your compost stay moist in winter by placing a burlap blanket or other breathable material over it. If your compost cools in the frigid months, don’t worry, once the temperatures warm up in spring your compost, turn your pile, add a little water and the pile will heat up again.
Colorado State University Extension, together with Boulder County Parks and Open Space, provides unbiased, research-based information about consumer and family issues, horticulture, natural resources, agriculture and 4-H youth development. For more information contact Extension at the Boulder County Fairgrounds, 9595 Nelson Rd., Box B, Longmont, 303.678.6238, or visit ext.colostate.edu/boulder.