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Forget Chemicals – Make Compost!
Now's the Time toStart Creating YourOwn Plant-feeding, Soil-improving, Disease-defeating Garden Gold!

Q. Dear Mike: I have heard you discouragethe use of fertilizers like Miracle-Gro on your program several times.What commercial fertilizers do you recommend for flowers andvegetables?  Many thanks. By the way— I went to school inPhiladelphia and really miss the food; can you get Philly Hoagies togrow on a vine like spaghetti squash????
                     --- RobertDance; Eastern North Carolina

Sorry Robert, there are manywonderful things you can do in beautiful NC, but growing—or evenpurchasing—a Hog Island Sandwich is not one of them. (It's the rolls;you gotta have the right rolls. Give me Amoroso's, or give meSarcone's!)

Anyway, yes; I rail against the useof chemical fertilizers—especially Miracle-Gro. They once ran an adcampaign trying to imply they were organic; when in reality, thosegaily-colored concentrated chemical salts are about as organic as abridge abutment—and about as helpful in the garden. Chemicalfertilizers may seem to produce good results at first, but that lushnew growth has been forced to appear much too fast by the plantequivalent of anabolic steroids. This results in a weak plant that'svery attractive to pests and disease. And the concentrated salts buildup in the soil over time, killing earthwormsand other beneficial soillife and eventually rendering the ground ungrowable.

There are many fine naturalfertilizers on the market. Gardens Alive offers a wideselection, eachblended for a specific use. I also like Neptune's Harvest concentratedliquid fertilizers—especially their seaweed/fish emulsion mix—andPlant-Tone, Holly-Tone and other products from the Espoma company.Otherwise, be sure to read labels carefully. Look for lists of naturalingredients, and 'just say no' if the label sports high NPK numbers; a'balanced' 20-20-20 or 40-40-40 fertilizer is definitely chemicallycomposed. (It ain't balanced either, but that's a rant for another day.)

But, of course, nothing beatshome-grown (actually home-made) compost. It feeds your plants, improvesthe soil around their happy widdle roots, and prevents diseases likeblack spot better than any commercial fungicide. Now if only someonewould send in a question asking how to make it…    

Q. Mike: Can I compost in the coldermonths? I want to stop throwing away my veggie scraps. I have beensaving all my Fall leaves, but I do not have a composter. Do I needone? How do I keep stuff from blowing all over the yard otherwise? AndI know I have to keep the contents moist, but if I make it too wet, airwon't circulate, right? Thanks!!!
                       ---Lori Benabou; Princeton, NJ

A. What a coincidence! (And if you believethat, Robert and I have some special 'hip-wader' land to sell you inNorth Carolina.) Anyway, good timing, Lori!

And good timing, Lori—because this isthe time of year you should start composting, to take advantage ofthose wonderful leaves. I do recommend composting in a bin. Not so much to keep the ingredients fromblowing around, but because a bin that allows for lots of airflow helpsthose ingredients become compost much faster as it contains them. Oneof the easiest and most effective designs is a big circle, square orrectangle made out of  four or five foot high sturdy animalfencing and some stakes. Four by four by four feet is the acceptedminimum size; bigger is always better, (Sorry, guys!)

In lovely New Joisey, rain and snowwill generally provide all the water your pile will need; in fact, youshould have a tarp handy to cover it temporarily if we get any more ofthem 11 incher washouts. Only folks in a really dry clime have to wateran open pile.

And thanks to your leaf-collectingwisdom, you have the absolutely crucial 'dry brown' carbon-richingredients in the form of those fabulous Fall leaves. First, shredthem up (for details, see our previous Qof the Week). Then beginmaking your pile by placing a nice thick, foot-deep layer of thoseshredded beauties in the bottom of a bin. Then, add a thinner layer of'wet green' nitrogen-rich materials—like dead garden plants, non-meatkitchen scraps, coffee grounds, tea bags and eggshells.

But don't go overboard—it is thosewonderful mineral-rich leaves that actually turn into the finishedproduct here. In fact, you can make great compost from shredded leavesalone. The wet green stuff just provides more food for the microscopicworkers—which can help move things along faster, and generallycontributes to a richer final product. But always use more leaves thangreens. (Green waste alone will not compost; it will just sit there andstink worse than a collection of my old columns.)

If the ingredients are initially dry,wet them down until they're the consistency of a wrung-out sponge. Keeplayering until you fill the bin all the way to the top; then don't addany more to this pile. Start another one so that the first pile can doits thing. It will not look like it's doing much when it's coldoutside, but stick your hand down in the center a few days after youfill that bin and you'll feel real heat. Even if you do nothing else,the bottom half will be finished compost by Spring. Use what'sobviously done in the garden then and mix the rest into another pile.(I have eight going so far!)

To make compost faster, roll some ofthat fencing into hollow tubes the diameter of your arm or leg andstick a tube into the center of each pile before you start adding theraw ingredients, making sure the top of the tube extends above the topof the cooking contents. And cook it will—that 'chimney' will draw airdown into the center of the pile and really speed the transformation oftrash to GardenGold!

You Bet Your Garden  ©2004 Mike McGrath

HelpfulProducts From Gardens Alive!
Time to make your own Garden Gold!Start by trying some of these useful products!

Compost Digester
Gives you the compost you want without the mess… and takes up less space! Throw in your shredded leaves, kitchen scraps, and coffee grounds for a meal your plants will love!

Gardeners GoldTM Compost Tea Kit
Compost tea will help your garden achieve more beautiful, disease resistant plants by boosting the health and structure of your soil.

Improves soil tilth while boostingplants' vitality
100% pure Kelp Meal improves soiltexture and fertility, and increases soil's capacity to retainmoisture. Our Kelp Meal is made from live, ocean-harvested seaweed.