Stella Otto: The Backyard Fruit Gardener

Today's Tip: Mow vegetation short around the base of fruit trees and bushes to reduce winter habitat for rodents.

Recipe for a Compost Pile

Fall is an excel­lent and con­ve­nient time to start com­post­ing. Many of the mate­ri­als you will need are avail­able in abun­dant sup­ply — fallen leaves, green gar­den trim­mings, grass clip­pings, and nat­ural mois­ture. For pur­pose of exam­ple, I am going to assume you are stock­ing a 3-sided com­post bin. The same prin­ci­ples apply to the other meth­ods as well. They are just vari­a­tions of how much and where the mate­ri­als are assembled.

You will want both car­bon and nitro­gen pro­vid­ing mate­ri­als. Gen­er­ally car­bon source mate­ri­als are thought of as “brown” or woody, dry, and older plant mate­r­ial — fallen leaves, straw, hay, small branches, wood chips, paper, even shred­ded card­board. Nitro­gen con­tribut­ing mate­ri­als are often seen as “green” or wet — fresh grass clip­pings, fruit and veg­etable scraps, tea leaves, and cof­fee grounds. Bone or blood meal, hair, and fresh manure from graz­ing ani­mals also sup­ply nitrogen.

Layer 1
Without regret, we bid goodbye to tender tomato, squash, and zucchini plants following the first snow of the fall, knowing they will be reincarnated in rich compost next spring

With­out regret, we bid good­bye to ten­der tomato, squash, and zuc­chini plants fol­low­ing the first snow of the fall, know­ing they will be rein­car­nated in rich com­post next spring

Now it’s time start build­ing your pile. Your bot­tom layer should be var­i­ous sources of organic mat­ter. It could con­sist of some straw or hay, chopped corn stalks or cobs, fine wood chips or small twigs. The coarse mate­r­ial will allow some aer­a­tion from the bot­tom. Then top with a thin layer of untreated grass clip­pings, veg­etable scraps and freshly fallen leaves, shred­ded if pos­si­ble. Usu­ally it is best to start with coarser mate­r­ial on the bot­tom, then finer mate­r­ial inter­spersed on top. Avoid thick dense lay­ers of wet grass clip­pings or leaves as they tend to mat and exclude oxy­gen. Blend in mul­ti­ple thin lay­ers with other mate­r­ial. Many sources say you should aim for a car­bon to nitro­gen ratio between 25:1 and 40:1. Adding brown, dry, car­bon mate­r­ial in a 2 to 1 ratio to green, wet, nitrogen-rich sources seems to achieve this bal­ance in prac­ti­cal home-scale com­post­ing. My expe­ri­ence is that my gar­den glean­ings and clean­ings seem to yield a suit­able ratio with­out too much worry on my part. What I’ve found more impor­tant is that smaller, finer chopped mate­r­ial will break down to rich com­post faster. As the com­post­ing process pro­gresses, the ratio of car­bon to nitro­gen will change any­how. It’s an ongo­ing “work in progress.” Keep build­ing until this organic mat­ter layer is 6 to 8 inches thick.

Layer 2

Your sec­ond layer will act as the “fire starter” if you will. In it you will pro­vide nitro­gen sources to feed the microbes that make the com­post process hap­pen. If you have access to manure from graz­ing ani­mals — horses, cows, sheep — an inch or two thick layer is ideal. Oth­er­wise you can add a kick-start with a com­mer­cial com­post starter. Just fol­low the pack­age directions.

Layer 3

Lastly, time to intro­duce some microor­gan­isms to get the whole process mov­ing. You can call on your best gar­den­ing friend to share a lit­tle “black gold” that is already team­ing with what it takes. Bar­ring that, some soil from your exist­ing gar­den will get the ball rolling as well. Avoid any soil treated with her­bi­cide, fungi­cide or insec­ti­cide or you will be work­ing at cross pur­poses. This step is mainly to get a quick start. Real­ity is,  if your pile is built on or in the ground, the needed organ­isms will find their way to your heap soon enough.

To get the process started, water your pile just as you would your gar­den. Give it a good soak­ing but not a flooding.

Most fruit trees and berry bushes grow best when fed with a fungal-dominated com­post. Fungi pre­fer to feed off car­bon source mate­ri­als. So for your fruit gar­den you will likely want to lean toward cre­at­ing a com­post higher on the car­bon end of the C:N ratio. Dry fallen leaves, wood chips, straw, and shred­ded paper will be your com­post­ing friends.

For other infor­ma­tion see —

Cre­at­ing Com­post
Com­post — Where to Begin
Con­tain­ing Your Com­post
Fac­tors that Affect the Com­post­ing Process
Com­post No-nos: What not to put in your com­post pile

Com­ing soon —

Com­post Conun­drums — Trou­bleshoot­ing your com­post pile
Com­post Myths