Composting is not always an option in this busy world even though it is easy. We help people do it. The difficulty in doing this is that it is a process of changing mindsets and habits. We have found that to properly serve people through all the seasons of a garden we have in fact had to become lifestyle coaches. It is an unavoidable part of gardening.

In Guelph they have started to charge a $5.00 flat fee for residents’ yard waste and there was a bit of an uproar. They had to take the measure of hiring a security guard to help deal with rude customers. If I was to get anything across in this post it is to educate people on several key points. Where I start is to point out that yard “waste” is in fact not waste. It is valuable. (I may draw a few metaphors as I do this) The only other point is that compost is not hard but, because it seems easy, it is easy to mess up. If you start your first one chance are you will mess it up. You will forget to feed it, you will throw the wrong things in it or miss out on an important step in proper maintenance and any of the above can stop the process of the pile.

The first difficulty as I have said is that we view materials from the garden as waste. It is not waste, it is an important part of the garden process. The irony is that when we view it as waste we are not understanding. The stories from our past, or our ancestors and community, are not a waste. They are an essential part of the process of learning. A story in a way is like a compost. It is the past feeding the future. It is odd but when you really think about it everything becomes in the end a tale. The moment it takes place, whether it is exciting, sad or full of regrets, is not really as exciting as watching it transform from memory to story and on to legend. Our lives compost, our gardens compost and learning the process in the physical realm of your yard will help you make better stories. Teaching your children will do wonders.

I watched a lady make Broccoli soup. What I saw was a woman who knew about life, who had felt in her compost pile in the past that gross wasted stump of Broccoli that was too large to easily process, that would not go away. She had learned to process hard things immediately and so as I watched I was not surprised that before discarding the stump in the “green” she chopped it up into smaller pieces. Now she would not need to mull over it every year in her pile. The stumps and the stories were chewed on and broken down as they happened and then were added to the pile. When emptying out the bin from last year’s memories and putting them on the garden for this year’s flowers and fruits she did not have any large baggage to hinder her.

My job of course is not to draw parallels to your personal life but I do need to guide you to stop viewing garden trimmings and kitchen cuttings as waste. There needs to be spots in your yard for different things and certain processes should be introduced. One needs to see the irony of shipping off the yard waste that has so much worth to the city and paying them to take it. One needs to see that feeding your very own compost in your back yard takes no more time than putting it in a city bin.

Compost should not include just waste from your garden. These tend to be dry materials such as leaves, spent flowers and twigs and these items do not break down well with out the proper proportion of nitrogen that a good pile needs. They do not fully break down fast enough on their own to make this worthwhile for the home owner without some planning. It is possible to do and there are techniques that can be employed to make this work but it is important when doing them that there is a clear understanding of what to expect and how much space should be used.

The latter dry pile though is a great place to start. It does not create an odor (or is WAY less likely to) and it needs very little maintenance. The trick with this is learning very simple techniques and making sure your yard can accommodate it.  All stages of designing a “dry” carbon based compost are inexpensive and if properly done there is no distraction to your yard. The other bonus is that you now have a ready supply of material to add to your more valuable compost when needed.

If you start with managing the dry and stockier material you now can more easily manage the gross nitrogen that a good pile needs. Nitrogen includes vegetables from your kitchen and lawn clippings. (just two examples) These do create odors if not managed properly. (One rule of thumb is 60% carbon (dry) and 40% nitrogen (green)) The greatest flaw with a compost pile is supply and demand; the seasons. If you do not want to turn your pile continuously it is important to keep up an inventory of supply of carbon to add to the nitrogen to help keep the pile working at its optimum and to eliminate odors. In the fall if you have a place to store leaves over winter and have them available in the spring and summer to mix in with the lawn clippings and kitchen scrap you will be better able to support a balance.

I on purpose do not get too technical with my posts. There are many great resources on the internet to help tune a compost pile and, once you begin and the conversation starts, these sites will be places you will want to visit often. Here are a few key thoughts that will hopefully encourage you to start.

  1. Start a carbon pile first. These are very easy to do and though they do take up space they are easily able to fit in any garden design.
    1. Think “mulch” when you create this. Cut stems and the like down to a size you would typically find in mulch.
    2. Spread evenly on the ground
    3. layer with leaves where possible. This is mostly for appearance but by making the layers even you will help the pile rot more evenly
    4. the pile will only ever get so big.
    5. NOTE: These piles take nitrogen from the soil. Fertilizing the plants next to the pile and even the pile will help everything.
  2. Start a kitchen waste compost. I suggest starting at step one for the first year. This helps you to begin to “budget” carbon, to see the seasonal needs and it will help train you in management.
    1. Keep the balance 60/40 as stated above.
    2. Never put excessive lawn clippings or greens of any kind in without stirring in an appropriate amount of leaves and layering with a fine layer of dirt. (or sheep and cattle manure)
    3. NEVER put in greases, bones or meat. No Animal feces.
    4. The design of this bin should allow you to access the pile from the bottom to occasionally empty it. The black bins are good or we can custom make a bin for you.

Grape HyacinthThis post may be the most important one you read. If you read up on crab grass and the tips there for general weeding you should have grasped the various ways weeds can be spread. Now you are about to learn one of the worst ways weeds can spread. What makes it the worst, besides introducing exotic weeds you had never seen before, is that these weeds come as a result of something good.

Compost and top dressing. Applying these to your lawn without taking into account the possible work and cost you are creating for yourself is naivete. Not being able to see the seed does not mean it is not there. Seeds can last for years and though a perfect compost pile eliminates most of them it does not eliminate all. There are few perfect compost piles. Compost, commercially processed, is far better than top dirt and has fewer weeds.  It is also better for your lawn. What follows are some suggestions when top dressing your lawn.

Expect there to be weeds. Different suppliers will have a different level of infestation. Even a reputable supplier with a great track record is unlikely to make promises. Bagged products are better than bulk and it is certainly more easy to test. (Not the large bags dropped by truck)
When you read what follows remember that small bags allow for more controlled testing and have not been exposed while sitting in a pile to more weeds after processing.

Test your product. If you are planning on top dressing your lawn it would be wise to take a wheel barrow or two and spread it on the edge of a shrub bed. If you have no annual bed or shrub bed to test it, then try and find somewhere other than your lawn to apply a sample. The main aim of this practical advice is that IF there are weeds in the product they can be identified and eradicated easier on your annual bed and the borders of a shrub bed than they can from the midst of your lawn.

When you are satisfied and you do apply to your lawn it is still imperative that you keep a close eye on weed growth. Be prepared to “nit pick” or what my crew has learned, “to be pernickety”. If there are strange weeds that sprout do not put off dealing with them. When they are very young they can be pulled out quite easily, not having roots long enough to bind and entwine with the existing grass. When we top dress the cost includes weekly visits for a month and bi weekly visits for the next month. Very important.

A few more general tips are simple. Do not spread the compost or manure too close to shrubs, perennials and young trees. At the trunk/ stalk is not where the nutrients are needed anyway. Weeds once mingled in the root system of the existing plants are much harder to eradicate.  Lawns may be the hardest and most time consuming but a close second is weeding a perennial bed.  This is why, when gardening, the base of the perennials is the most critical place to check and to keep clear of weeds.  Our crew is instructed to check there first. The weeds between the plants are obvious and will eventually annoy you enough to remove them so, in a sense, they will take care of themselves. The least qualified employee would get the obvious, the best qualified knows the overall aim is the plants. There is nothing worse than grass in Day Lillies or Dandelions in a clump of Daisies. Most times the perennials have to be ripped out and the roots “purged” in order to separate the weed roots. Check the base of your plants first.

Though this article is done the suggestion to be apply product to a shrub base first in the latter paragraphs gave me an idea that perhaps is useful. Remember, slow gardening is better than reactionary impulses. It is up to you to be informed too. The idea? Create an annual bed that is empty from late fall until May.