Fall: The Best Time to Start a Compost Pile

organic compost pileAnd once again summer is over and fall has come to the garden.  I hope you had a productive garden this year. You may still be harvesting some fall crops and hoping those last tomatoes will ripen before the first frost. Of course, some vegetables thrive in the fall. Brussels’s Sprouts, for example, have better flavor after a frost.

But most things don’t fare so well once that frost hits your garden with its yearly declaration that winter is coming. You’re going to have a lot of dead vegetation to deal with. And the best remedy is to put it in your compost pile.

Now I hope you already have some sort of composting system. There are lots of ways to compost. Personally, I prefer just a big pile with no walls or contraptions to contain it.  I have so many leaves and dead plant material in the fall, there is no way to China that I could fit it all into one of those compost tumblers or bins made out of wooden pallets.

So, I just pile everything up and let nature do its magic (okay, it’s really soil science, but it does seem like magic sometimes). And there are a few tricks you can do to help the process along. I’ll get to those in just a minute.

Fall is the best time to start a compost pile

You can start a compost pile almost anytime of the growing season. For obvious reasons, I wouldn’t recommend the dead of winter; there’s just not enough stuff to compost, but if you have a compost pile already established, you can certainly add to it during the winter months.

During the spring and summer, I am constantly taking compost from last year’s pile and adding some stuff along the way, like spent flower stalks, vegetable trimmings, etc.

But come fall, you should start a whole new pile so you’ll have compost ready for next spring. For me, fall is the best time to do this because there is so much compost material in my garden.

Here are just a few tips to help make your compost pile more successful:

  • Prep your stalks before composting them

    Prep your stalks before composting them

    If you put stiff, fibrous stalks in the compost, make sure you cut them up in smaller pieces first.  This helps them break down quicker and it’s easier to mix them in.  (See the picture to the right.)

  • Remember to layer different types of things in your compost pile.  I put a layer of green things, like hosta leaves, then a layer of leaves, then I take a shovel full or two of last year’s compost and spread it on top (see photos below). Then I give it a good soaking and repeat the process until I have everything in the pile.  Sometime is about 4 or 5 feet tall.  This may take several days to cut down all the dying greenery.
  • If you are doing any canning, always add the vegetable and fruit trimmings to your compost pile in the layering method mentioned above.
  • Depending on the leaves you have, you may need to shred them first.  Oak leaves, for example, will mat down once they get wet and just turn into a nasty muck.  You can run them through a leaf shredder, put them in a pile on the lawn and run the mower over them. Or better yet (but not quite as effective, but a lot more fun), let the kids jump in said pile. This will break them down a bit and then rake them into the compost.  I have all maple leaves and have never really had a problem with matting because I make thing enough layers of all the stuff and that seems to take care of it.
This is the 1st layer in my compost pile: plants and stalks

This is the 1st layer in my compost pile: plants and stalks

2nd layer: dried leaves

2nd layer: dried leaves

3rd layer:  add some compost from last year's pile

3rd layer: add some compost from last year’s pile. Don’t forget to squirt it with the hose.

organic compost pile

Keep adding layers

DO NOT put any of the following in your compost pile:

• Dead tomato plants or any diseased plants or fruit.

• Weeds that have gone to seed in the compost pile.  Some folks claim you can do this and that the heat of the composting process will kill the seeds.  That is pretty risky business if you ask me.  I may work and it may not.

• Flowers that have gone to seed.  Unless of course you want Holly Hocks, etc. coming up everywhere.  (Okay, okay, sometimes this can be a nice surprise.  I had some magnificent cock’s comb come up in unexpected places. You can always transplant things, but it can be a bother of extra work to pull all those seedlings out or transplant them somewhere else.)

Just yesterday, I was out in the garden, or what’s left of it, dead-heading my Black-eyed Susans (rudbeckia), Sunchokes, thistles, etc.  I go through my flower beds with a bucket and shears and quickly cut off the flower heads. Then I cut the whole stalks down, chop them into smaller sections and add to the compost pile.

I love the crisp, cool air and the bright blues skies of fall.  And it is pure delight to work in the garden on those days. But I also love working in the garden on the overcast days as fall inches toward winter. It usually takes me several weeks to get the garden cleaned up and all the trimmings put in the compost pile.  But then it is ready to be transformed into “Gardener’s Gold.”

Have you started new compost pile yet?

Enjoy the fall,

James

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