Wednesday, November 14, 2007

When is the best time to add compost to your garden?

I don't think I've ever really thought about whether there are good or bad times of the year to add compost to the garden - until this past weekend. I have always focused on how great fresh "home-made" compost is for an organic garden and just added it whenever it became available.

This weekend I was delighted to find that I had a lot of compost ready so I began top dressing some of my garden beds. Much of my pile behind the garden had fully broken down and the batch of organic matter that I put in my new compost tumbler at the beginning of the season was completely ready!

As I happily added my new compost to the garden, I started wondering if I'd be better served to wait until Spring to add it. That way it would still be "fresh" when the tender new plants were ready to be fed. What do you think? Does it matter when you add the compost as long as you do add it? This may be a stupid question, or maybe everyone but me already knows the answer, but here are my initial thoughts:

1. If you garden in raised beds it is okay to add compost anytime, but if your garden is just a flat "field", the nutrients may be leeched away if you add it too soon.

2. If the compost is not fully decomposed you should NOT add it when you plant new young plants because many of the nutrients are "locked up" during the decomposition period and therefore will not be helping the plants.

Are these crazy thoughts? I'm really not sure where I got these ideas and began to ponder it while working in the garden. Sometimes the peace and solitude you get while in the garden can do that. I know this post is a bit unusual but help me out. Any fellow composters out there? Are there right and wrong times to add the wonderful stuff to your garden?

4 comments:

Meg

Interesting. My husband and I have a big ol' batch of compost that we decided to save until the Spring. We have raised beds, though they're not built up with boards on the side--just mounds.

We decided not to use it now because we didn't want to take the chance of snow and rain sucking all the good stuff out of the compost before plants got to it. However, we did put it all over our Fall-planted peas, lettuce, carrots, etc. I'm sure there's a more scientific answer.

Also, probably a main reason we saved our compost is that we're incredibly slow garden cleaner-uppers and would probably be digging compost out of the snow in January to put on the just-cleaned pepper plant beds. So we saved it.

Carol

I usually clean out my compost bins in the fall and top dress my raised beds with it. I think your reasoning sounds good.

I do know that spring or fall, the compost will benefit the soil in a good way!

Patrick

Compost is best used fresh. If you let it sit around too long it starts to collect weeds, compacts and otherwise loses it's structure. The best thing is to use it as soon as it's ready.

I don't use a tumbler, I just have a pile. Like Carol I think, my usual cycle means my compost is usually ready in the fall. I collect is during the growing season and build a pile in the fall. In the spring I usually stir it, it's usually ready in August or so and I try to use it as soon after this as possible.

The nutrients can wash away, but really compost is not that rich in nutrients like a fertilizer, it's more of a soil conditioner. Well made compost has a humus structure that makes it very resistant to washing away.

You should be a little reasonable, but it's usually not a problem to use compost before it's finished. A few not yet decomposed pieces are not a problem, they will just break down in your garden. People that grow green manure crops intentionally dig fresh plants into the ground, and they usually decompose within a month or two. Some people who depend on a lot of mulch in their garden, if they have a compost pile at all, have a very small one. This is because they just put everything straight on the garden as mulch and let it decompose there.

Compost is really good as a soil conditioner. Whatever might be wrong with your soil, compost will usually fix. If you soil is heavy, compost will loosen it and help it drain. If your soil is lose and has a hard time holding moisture, compost will fix this too. The same thing is true with pH, compost brings your soil towards an ideal pH for most plants. The same thing with most nutrients, and almost any other problems you might have. Compost is also great for attracting beneficial insects and worms to your garden.

When you think about 'good things' or something like a fertilizer, this is not really what compost is. In the whole scheme of things, the most important nutrient is probably nitrogen, and if you don't use chemical fertilizer, growing nitrogen fixing crops like beans are a much more effective way to put this into the ground than compost.

Proper crop rotation is also very important to keep the nutrients in your garden balanced. For example some crops draw nutrients closer to the surface, and more available to other plants. Compost can help a lot, but it's not a complete substitute for good rotation practices.

Anyway, I'm going to stop now. This is probably a lot more than you wanted to know about compost...

Ewa

Question is very good and last commenting Patrick seems to know everything about it :)

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