Compost can be beneficial to your yard in numerous ways. However, before going into that, consider one benefit of composting on a larger scale.
Composting and the Environment
Composting is good for the environment. Everything that you put into your compost pile is something that you are not sending out to a landfill, or to the sewage treatment plant. Now, granted, your composting materials are all organic substances that decompose readily. However, they would still take up space in a landfill. And, unlike your compost pile, landfills are not designed to decompose and shrink, or disappear. They are designed to fill up land (hence “landfill”), to be buried where they may sit underground for many decades.
Another way composting can help the environment: reduced need for artificial fertilizers. You most likely have heard about problems with people over-fertilizing, and that excess fertilizer ends up in ground water, then streams and eventually in our lakes and rivers. By using compost you may be able to greatly reduce or even eliminate fertilizer in your yard. And you don’t really have to worry about killing your plants by burning them with too much compost the way you do with fertilizers.
Using Compost in Your Yard
Compost is a great soil additive. Because compost is made up of different ingredients, each of which decomposes at different rates, your compost will continue to produce and add nutrients to the soil for a good while. It is OK to have small bits of raw material in the compost, such as stems and twigs, as long as most of it has broken down. These little bits continue to decompose gradually while plants withdraw nutrients from the other already decomposed materials.
Fall is the best time to incorporate large volumes of compost into your yard. Spread all of your completed compost over every growing surface – flower beds, gardens, and even your lawn. If you have the tools, and the ambition, you can mix or till the compost into the soil for added benefit. However, even just leaving the compost on the surface of the soil over the winter will make a huge difference in your yard. The best time to do this is after the first killing frost, but before the soil becomes frozen solid.
Spring is also an excellent time to spread compost. If you have a pile decomposing over the winter you may, indeed, have some ready at that time of the year. If you apply compost in the spring, do so at least a month before planting begins. This will allow time for the compost to mix into and interact with the soil. Besides adding nutrients and microorganisms to the soil, compost absorbs and retains heat better than soil, which will bring your beds out of winter a little earlier.
Using Compost with Seeds and New Plants
All of your plants will benefit from compost. However, if you are starting seeds and young seedlings, you may need to add a little fertilizer to the soil ahead of time, primarily phosphorous. This is because brand new plants, which haven’t had the time to send out roots and leaves for nutrient gathering, are most likely to suffer from malnutrition, and even compost may not contain enough to get the plants through that initial growth phase. If you do decide to use some fertilizer, keep these points in mind:
- Most of the nutrients needed will be supplied by the compost, so much less than the normal recommended amount of fertilizer should be used.
- Phosphorous is the most important nutrient to add by fertilizer. Packaged fertilizer like you might find at your garden center, come with three big numbers on the front – for example, 14-6-8. These numbers reflect the percent of Nitrogen (N), Phosphorous (P) and Potassium (K) in the fertilizer. So, select a fertilizer where the middle number is higher.
- Apply the fertilizer with the compost a month before planting. This will allow the fertilizer to be absorbed into the soil and stored ready for your plants. It will also prevent your plants and seedlings from burning from too much fertilizer.
Applying Compost to the Yard
A garden tiller is an ideal tool for mixing compost into your soil. Just spread a 1-inch layer of compost on top of your soil and till it in a few inches deep! If you don’t have a tiller, and you
have a strong back, you can double-dig a bed for optimal results. To double-dig, follow these steps:
Remove a row of soil from the bed, about one spade wide and deep, and place it in a wheel barrow. Put 3-4 inches of compost in the bottom of that trench. Then, dig the next, adjacent, row of soil and place it on top of the compost in the first row. Continue on down the bed, replacing the last row with the soil set aside from the first row.
If you are going to use compost in a vegetable or annual garden it is a good idea to screen the compost with a ½-inch sieve, to screen out larger pieces of undecomposed material. These larger pieces can then be thrown back into the compost pile.
Screened mulch also makes for great mulch around closely spaced vegetable and flower plants. You don’t have to worry about it burning the stems of the plants, and it will protect the plants from the elements while simultaneously providing additional nutrients to the soil over the growing season. This is a good use of compost if you have plenty on hand. However, if your compost is in short supply, mixing it into the soil beforehand is the most beneficial.
Other Uses of Compost
You can also make compost tea to provide a liquid fertilizer to your plants. Just mix equal parts compost and water, stir thoroughly, and then use the water to pour over new transplants, as well as
houseplants. You can also spray it on seedlings. You should be able to make several batches of tea out of the same batch of compost.
If you are going to use purchased soil for your beds or pots, you can mix compost in with the soil ahead of time. One of the most common mixtures is 1/3 soil, 1/3 compost, and 1/3 coarse substance like sand, perlite or vermiculite. It is important to mix this thoroughly by sifting or shredding, although I know of one person who uses their rototiller and has good results.
Compost is great for adding to your soil when you are planting a new lawn. This will give your grass a great start. You can also add it as top-dressing to existing lawns. The ideal time is when you are aerating the lawn, but just sprinkling over the top will still benefit it. Just make sure you screen the compost finely, so you’re not adding branches and twigs all over the place!