The Nitty Gritty on Composting I

The air has turned crisp and the crunch of the fallen leaves under my boots… wait, wait.  It’s turned really crisp and the crunch is the ice on my lawn.  Yup, it’s fall in the Carson Valley.  From the hot days of summer, straight to winter (long enough to wipe out the summer garden), then finally to fall.  Yes, the cold is not easy on us.

Though the summer gardens have blackened and are done (for most of us) it’s not time to wipe the mud off your boots yet!  Save the manicure for after some grizzly garden projects that will set you ahead for spring!

I have a few projects lined up for you, so I will probably break down my ramblings into a few different posts.  Can’t get rid of me that easily!  First project: fall cleanup.


I know, kind of obvious, but maybe not.  All those sad plants that got frozen in their prime by that terrible frost last week (I told Janey to give Elsa the memo that I am not pleased by this and the cold bothers me and my garden!).  Do not place the dead plants in the trash!  Nope, not the green bin either.  Those plants are still valuable (even in death!) so let’s put them to use for next year’s garden.

This post, we’re talking compost!  We’ll cover why you want to make your own and why you should start the process now.  I know this sounds bizarre, I mean, don’t we need the heat of summer for it to “cook”?  Everything is slowing down in fall!  This is true, but the most material can be had in the fall.  Also, with the right ingredients and the right ratio of those ingredients you can have your compost cooking great during these last few weeks before winter (I’m going with last week was a hiccup!  We are still getting a full fall Carson Valley!).


So why make your own compost?

Compost can seem gross, time consuming- all that turning, not to mention the expense of that fancy-turny-thing from Costco.  Yeah, I understand some of your point.  In reality, it’s not gross, doesn’t take too much turning and you don’t need any fancy equipment.  You know us by now, we are anything but fancy farmers.


1.  Its Economical

We live in the high desert.  It’s hard to get good quality compost (yes there’s such a thing as bad compost!) since there’s a mountain range between us and an abundance supply, it can get costly.  Going to the big box stores is an option but can be hit or miss as far as quality, and it gets expensive. I asked other farmer friends in the area to see their source for compost, they make it.  My third season of growing, I now understand why. I would rather buy more dahlia tubers or cool kids stuff like horizontal netting and a rototiller than subpar compost!

Plus, you most likely are already discarding the material!  Instead of throwing it in the green waste basket for someone else to profit off of (because they do) toss it into a pile on the side of your house (we’ll go through that easy process in The Nitty Gritty on Compost II).


2. Quality

Compost is considered “black gold,” and for good reason!  It is the perfect example of the “Circle of Life” (yes, my children have been on a Lion King binge…), the annual plants eventually die, the grass needs to be cut, and the leaves eventually fall.  All of these wonderful ingredients can be layered together to make some black gold.  Any good garden, especially gardens coming into their third year (the sweet spot where the bad bugs and diseases got the memo of your luscious garden) and beyond, begins with the health of the soil.  Compost provides essential nutrients and trace minerals plants need to thrive (because we are all about a thriving garden- not just a surviving garden).  To learn more about the nutrients plant’s need and why please read my past blog post The Nitty Gritty on Plant Nutrition.

The idea behind making compost, is your want to add materials that have the nutrients you hope to attain in the finished product.


3. Risk of introducing disease, pests, or noxious weeds

Kind of like knowing where the beef came from in your hamburger, compost is much the same.  You don’t want to eat a cheeseburger prepared by someone with unwashed hands (I don’t need to go into detail on this, right?).  Garden centers and other vendors have sold compost that was made with diseased plant material, noxious weeds, pests or simply have not allowed the materials to fully break down before bagging and selling to you. I prefer to play it on the cautious side.  I pamper my garden, the last thing I want to do is introduce a noxious weed, bacteria, virus, or pests into my space with vulnerable plant babies!  Yes, disease and pests should be killed in a properly cooked compost but let’s be honest, companies and people take short cuts all the time.  Not all of them, not all the time, but it happens.  A garden is an investment into future food and joy, research what you introduce into your soil.  Some things you can’t take back.


4. Nitrogen robbing compost. 

The bugs nom your seedlings, the birds nom on your grains, the squirrels nom on your tomatoes, and now the compost is nomming on your soil.  What the heck?!  It’s like every force possible if after your garden.  They are.  It’s a beautiful buffet.  There are tricks and tactics to controlling garden pests but nitrogen robbing compost?  That just leads to a not-so-leafy greens.  Sadly, you probably spent good money on that compost and unless you blood meal or chicken poo (but not too much or too fresh, it’ll burn your plants!) your garden isn’t going to be thriving.  If you mixed in compost that hadn’t been fully broken down (you can see chunks or wood chips) there’s no taking it out.  It will take the nitrogen that your plants need for its own selfish use of further the decomposition process.  We’ll get further into that process in The Nitty Gritty on Compost II.


5. Own your garden!

There is quite a sense of accomplishment being involved in the complete process of your garden.  By being more involved, you learn more, you understand more.  Gardening is not a mystery and matchsticks do not need to be planted with your tomatoes.  By learning the different processes and being involved, you will be more knowledgeable and better learn to troubleshoot and succeed in gardening.  We cannot control the weather and frosts but we can control what we can control- building healthy soil and making good quality compost.  Like most gardening chores, it builds character and makes for a great teaching moment for your family! 


Have I sold you on making your own compost yet?  I may not be the best salesman but I’m passionate and truthful. 

On the next post, I will get into the how-to make your compost piles and I must warn you, it gets a little science nerdy!  

Happy growing!

- Jessica