Saturday, March 25, 2017

Compost Day

     Today was compost day!  I know that March 25 is Greek Independence Day and the day in which Earth Hour is observed, and I realize that compost day is not a holiday, or even a special day, recognized by anyone except me.  In fact it is not even observed on the same date each year.  It simply happens on the last Saturday of March.  It has for the past twenty years.
     When I first moved into this house, it was newly constructed; in fact it was built to my specifications and following my design.  The site was also treated, more or less, to my specifications.  The site was originally heavily wooded and I chose to keep much of that forest intact.  In the front, it was actually a part of the passive solar system designed into the house and site.  In order to get an initial green, I requested that the contractor plant all areas that were no longer wooded and had been disturbed with a seeding of annual rye grass.  This allowed us to pass the final inspection and get our certificate of occupancy.  It was not a permanent grass.
     Actually, nothing planted on this site at that point would have been a permanent grass.  When the house was completed and the final grading done, any topsoil was long gone and there was nothing left but good, red Triassic Basin clay.  You know, the stuff that Carolina red bricks are made of.  Unfortunately, bricks do not grow healthy plants.  At the most I might have gotten a month out of any seed that germinated and plants put into this rock hard delight would likely have simply continued to grow in their little root ball area as if they were still in a pot.
     What my soil needed was organic matter.  It needed to be taken from purely mineral to an actual living soil.  That first year I had a truckload, think the size of a semi-trailer, of compost delivered from the only locally available compost supplier in the area at the time.  Thus it came from the closest County dump once the Health Department had deemed it completely composted and safe.  The truck pulled up to the front and dumped a huge steaming pile of black stuff said to be primarily yard waste compost.  I then spread it out over all areas that I intended to plant with either shrubs or grass.  It was about two inches deep over all of these areas when I was finished.  I borrowed a tiller and tilled all of this area with a six inch blade.  The top of my soil turned from a hard red brick to a much softer and fluffier soil with a brown tone.  I had a created six inch layer of topsoil on top of my red brick.  Then I planted it.
     What I got was good growth from the new shrubs and perennials and a nice green lawn.  That first year I planted a hybrid dwarf Bermuda grass and then after it was established I sprigged Zoysia grass.  My lawn areas went from green to a checker block of two shades of green and then eventually to a lush thick green grass.
     I committed early on in the process to not use any chemicals on my site.  Thus I was not intending to use fertilizer nor was I going to use insecticide, herbicide or fungicide.  To date, I have been able to stay within those self-prescribed limits.  I've planted things that aid naturally in bug control and used beneficial bugs to get rid of the ones that cause problems, hand weeded (with the understanding that I will not have a complete monoculture) and have used things like milk baths to keep fungus outbreaks to a minimum.  As for the greening of the site, I have my annual compost day.
     After that first massive compost endeavor, I have merely needed an annual booster shot.  I do not need or want to have a two inch layer placed on the site or a six inch till job.  What I need is a little boost.  Thus, I place a thin layer of about a half inch of compost on the beds and grass.  It filters through mulch and grass and makes its way to the soil in a week or two and then is carried into the soil by worms and other soil macrobes.  Once a year is all it takes and because it is not as much being put down, I no longer buy it by the truck load.  In fact, I "make" some of it from my own yard waste.  Once the grass greens up and I start mowing it for the year, I leave the clippings and they also fall through the grass and further help the soil.
     For anyone wanting to go natural, I would like to point out that certified compost is now widely available and you can likely find a local supplier for that initial application.  For subsequent years, you can probably get by with a few bags of prepackaged compost from a garden center.  Yesterday for compost day I got ten fifty pound bags of composted cow manure.  It was stacked and ready for me to place out this morning.  If you are trying this for the first time, I suggest that you purchase one bag and spread some of it out to see what that brand is like.  You want compost that has very little smell (indicating that it has completed the breakdown that makes compost), and a nice black color (indicating carbon).  That color should remain after the compost has had a chance to dry out.  It should not have bits of plastic or pieces of sticks and wood in it.  It should crumble easily in your hand.  Once you have a company that you can trust, buy enough to cover your entire area and spread it out.  I tend to empty each bag into a wheel barrow and then spread it out with a pot.  There is really not wrong way and any inconsistencies in placement are really not a problem.  Macrobes will help get it more evenly spread over time.  Make sure that you DO NOT fertilize.  The compost is enough - for the year.
     As for why I make the last weekend in March compost day, I take my cue from the grass.  By the last weekend in March it is just beginning to green up.  This gives the compost the opportunity to fall through to the soil before I need to mow while making good use of the warming nights and soil to get worms and others out and helping.  You can choose any day of the year that works for you.  In fact, if you have a cool season grass like fescue, you will likely want to make that day work with when that grass is not growing.  That might not be early spring.
     Welcome to the world of organic gardening!   It is actually a lot easier than you think.  After all, you will be using the natural world to do what it does best.