Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

GARDENING: Quick and dirty

Store leaves for composting next spring, summer

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Gardeners living in the Red River Valley have to contend (wrestle may be a better word) with clay soil. In addition to poor drainage and compaction, clay soil takes longer to warm up in the spring. Plants grow much better when clay soil is revitalized with the annual addition of organic materials such as compost.

Adding a three- to four-inch-deep layer of garden compost as summer mulch aids in suppressing weeds, conserving soil moisture, keeping roots cool, and contributing nutrients to the soil. Alternately, a thick layer of garden compost applied to tender plants such as heuchera, ornamental grasses and borderline hardy plants just prior to winter freeze-up can prevent frost heave in the winter by helping to regulate the soil temperature.

Today's contributor is Dave Elmore who works in the home composting program at the Green Action Centre in Winnipeg. Elmore has welcome news for gardeners who are dealing with an overabundance of leaves: add some to your compost bin and store the remainder for next year's composting.

If you have mountains of leaves, only a small compost bin and too few paper bags for waste pickup, consider making leaf mould. Only two ingredients are required: leaves and water. Identify an area of your yard where you can store a pile of leaves (shredded is best). Soak the pile with the garden hose; add more leaves and more water. Next spring's snow melt plus the gradual addition of grass clippings will soon provide you with an excellent soil amendment for your garden.

Karen Loewen, a master composter who gardens in Steinbach, saves kitchen scraps in a large, reusable container that she adds to her compost bin in spring, together with stored, excess leaves that she runs over with a lawnmower in the fall. "This was a summer of endless watering to keep plants alive. In July I distributed a two-inch thick layer of last year's leaves (still in bags and partially decomposed) over the beds to retain the moisture. My plants remained hydrated and perky for the rest of the summer. Bare earth is not natural in this world -- nature will always try to rectify that, beginning with weeds."

Green Action Centre promotes composting for all Manitobans by providing information, resources, and support. Interested in attending a workshop to learn more? Contact Green Action Centre for more information at 925-3776 or call their toll-free compost info line at 1-866-394-8880.

-- Colleen Zacharias

Composting is a simple way to reduce waste, help tend to the health of our planet and at the same time produce a fabulous soil amendment for your plants and garden. The compost you produce by recycling your waste is an essential tool in improving soil ecology by returning nutrients to the earth.

Up to 40 per cent of our waste is organic and therefore compostable. When this same waste is compacted into a landfill, it produces methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more powerful than CO2. Combined with the additional emissions from transporting the waste, it is a significant contributor to climate change. Organics buried in the landfill can also react with metals and other waste to produce toxic leachate which leads to groundwater pollution.

Composting on the other hand, produces a nutrient-rich fertilizer that will improve the texture, water retention (less watering) and drainage characteristics of soil. It also reduces the use of chemical fertilizers that leach into our lakes and streams. Compost is your pollution-free alternative.

So with all of its financial savings, benefits for your soil and our earth, why wouldn't you compost? There are a few myths and misunderstandings about composting that keep people from getting started. At Green Action Centre we have the answers to help you avoid the pitfalls and we'll gladly share them with you.

So let's get to that easy part!

Composting is simple and requires no special equipment. You get to decide how much work you want to put into it as well. All you need is a willingness and a bit of knowledge in order to compost effectively. Depending on your property and space available, you may want to start by purchasing or building a compost bin. You can, however, just start with a pile in your yard -- the choice is yours. There are lots of options commercially available and even more for those willing to build it themselves.

The next step is understanding what goes into your compost bin. There are two types of organics, greens and browns. Greens are the wet materials such as vegetable/fruit scraps, coffee grounds, tea bags, garden waste and grass clippings. Browns are the dry materials such as leaves, straw, sawdust etc.

These materials are rich in carbon and that is an important thing to remember. The many organisms that will be at work in your compost need both of these materials. Greens, rich in nitrogen, provide the protein and help these organisms reproduce while the browns provide energy. There are a few things you should avoid adding to your compost such as meat, fish, dairy products, pet waste, weeds (with seeds), and diseased plants or produce.

So how much of each? You should always cover your greens with about two to three times as much browns by volume. Right now is a great time to gather and store those valuable leaves. Not only does this provide the right balance, but it also (remember carbon) provides a filter for any odours. It is not a science and you don't have to measure anything, just cover your greens.

There are a few other things you should consider. Your compost pile is full of living organisms and like us they need water and air to be healthy. If they are healthy, their population and activity will increase and so will the temperature of your compost pile. The hotter your compost pile gets, the faster you get compost! If however you are not concerned with how quickly you get compost, then there is little else you need to do.

Keeping your pile at about 50 per cent moisture (about the same as a wrung-out sponge) and turning it every two to three weeks will ensure you have a healthy environment for all your little workers. Turning your pile sounds like a lot of work, but it doesn't have to be. Many garden centres sell compost-aerating tools that are essentially a pointed rod with wings on the bottom. As you push and pull the tool into your pile it creates the essential air channels needed. You don't, however, want the pile to get too wet or it can lead to odour issues, but this is easily fixed by mixing in some dry brown materials.

Finished compost can take a few months or a few years to mature; it depends on how much effort you want to put into it. It is difficult to know exactly when compost is fully mature, but there are a few simple signs you can look for. It should be dark brown and have an earthy smell. There should be no visible food matter; however there may be twigs or other hard materials that have not yet broken down. These can always be screened out and tossed back into the compost pile. You can also dig down into the pile and see if it is still generating heat. If it is, you should wait a few weeks, however it is always best to harvest in the fall. By the time spring rolls around any activity that might rob growing plants of needed nitrogen will be finished and the compost safe to use.

Your finished compost can be used on pretty much anything that grows, inside or out. You can top dress your grass, spread it on your gardens, or mix it in your potting soil. The potential uses are endless.

Considering the time of year you may ask, can I compost in winter? Absolutely! In fact it is even easier because you don't need to cover the greens with browns. They will freeze anyway and that will help to break down the materials.

Composting is easy and a win for the environment. Why not give it a try?

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 27, 2012 ??65525

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