All the spring garden questions are coming into Ask Gardenerd this week. Here’s one now:
“Hello! I’m about to start spring planting so I need to amend my soil a
bit. I have a barrel of compost that has been doing its thing for about
10 months. It’s mostly done, but there are still some chunks of leaves. Should I use this compost now or do I need to wait? thanks!”
I’m guessing that your compost set up has been one where you add material to it and let it sit, correct? This would be considered cold composting (which is a misnomer because even cold composting generates some heat). Hot composting occurs when a pile is tended and turned on a regular basis. Both create compost, it just takes longer with cold composting.
Whether or not you’ve turned your pile, you most likely have some rich dark compost on the bottom of the pile that is ready for harvesting, since it’s been 10 months (it would happen in about 3 with hot composting). Here’s what I suggest that you do:
1) Move the debris or un-decomposed to a new area, like right next to the existing pile
2) Smell the pile when you reach the dark part of the pile – if it smells sweet it’s ready for use. If it smells like garbage in any way, keep cooking.
3) Sift your newly created black gold through a screen – wire mesh or several layers of chicken wire will serve nicely. You can build one using the instructions on the Gardenerd Blog entry here: Building a Compost Sifter.
The reason for this is because un-decomposed organic matter will actually steal nitrogen from your soil to continue breaking down. You don’t want that.
4) Put the big pieces back into the new pile
5) Add your freshly harvested compost to your planting beds. You can top dress (laying down a layer of two inches or so on top) or you can mix it in to a depth of 6-12 inches prior to planting. I like to mix a little organic vegetable fertilizer in with the compost to get plants off to a good start.
That’s about it! I hope this helps. Keep composting – you’re doing the world a favor!
If you don’t know how to compost, check out the upcoming Composting Workshop on May 30th! Stop buying bagged soil amendments and start cutting waste today!