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Forget Chemicals – Make Compost!
Now's the Time to Start Creating Your Own Plant-feeding, Soil-improving, Disease-defeating Garden Gold!

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

Sorry Robert, there are many wonderful things you can do in beautiful NC, but growing—or even purchasing—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 me Sarcone's!)

Anyway, yes; I rail against the use of chemical fertilizers—especially Miracle-Gro. They once ran an ad campaign trying to imply they were organic; when in reality, those gaily-colored concentrated chemical salts are about as organic as abridge abutment—and about as helpful in the garden. Chemical fertilizers may seem to produce good results at first, but that lush new growth has been forced to appear much too fast by the plant equivalent of anabolic steroids. This results in a weak plant that's very attractive to pests and disease. And the concentrated salts buildup in the soil over time, killing earthworms and other beneficial soil life and eventually rendering the ground un growable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And thanks to your leaf-collecting wisdom, you have the absolutely crucial 'dry brown' carbon-rich ingredients in the form of those fabulous Fall leaves. First, shred them up. Then begin making your pile by placing a nice thick, foot-deep layer of those shredded beauties in the bottom of a bin. Then, add a thinner layer of 'wet green' nitrogen-rich materials—like dead garden plants, non-meat kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, tea bags and eggshells.

But don't go overboard—it is those wonderful mineral-rich leaves that actually turn into the finished product here. In fact, you can make great compost from shredded leaves alone. The wet green stuff just provides more food for the microscopic workers—which can help move things along faster, and generally contributes to a richer final product. But always use more leaves than greens. (Green waste alone will not compost; it will just sit there and stink 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. Keep layering until you fill the bin all the way to the top; then don't add any more to this pile. Start another one so that the first pile can do its thing. It will not look like it's doing much when it's cold outside, but stick your hand down in the center a few days after you fill 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's obviously done in the garden then and mix the rest into another pile. (I have eight going so far!)

To make compost faster, roll some of that fencing into hollow tubes the diameter of your arm or leg and stick a tube into the center of each pile before you start adding the raw ingredients, making sure the top of the tube extends above the top of the cooking contents. And cook it will—that 'chimney' will draw air down into the center of the pile and really speed the transformation of trash to Garden Gold!