Troubled by Compostthat Isn't Cooking?Wood Mulch Monsters Staining Your Home? The Solution is About to FallRight IntoYour Lap!
Q. Dear Mike: We have a compostbarrel we got at a garden fair. It's over halfway filled with kitchengarbage—no leaves, because we mulch them back into the lawn with ourmower. The compost has never been turned, nothing has been added to itto speed up the process, and I'm getting nervous. What happens whenit's filled up? How can we move things along? I have this scaryvision of our yard filled with full compost bins.
---Skyin New Jersey
Mike: A couple of years ago we putmulch down around our house and gotthese small specks all over the aluminum siding. My wife remembers thatyou said the specks were actually a mold that comes from wood mulch. Wewant to mulch this year but obviously want to avoid the mold problem.Can you recommend a safer mulch? Someone told us that grass clippingscould be used if the grass was not treated. But we treated our grassthis year, so this is not a solution. Thanks for your help.
---TeddyP.; Downingtown, PA,
A. The answer to both yourquestions is in the process of turning beautiful brilliant colors andbeginning their inevitable drop to the ground—Fall leaves. Somemisguided folks think of them as an onerous outdoor chore, but we goodlittle gardeners know that leaves are the secret to having a beautifulchemical-free landscape! And they're FREE!
Sky: You absolutely NEED the carbonin shredded leaves if you intend touse your kitchen waste—or other nitrogen-rich green material—to makecompost. Ah, compost! GardenGold! A better disease-fighting,plant-feeding, soil-improving material than anything you can buy—andits FREE!!!
Sorry, I get carried away sometimes.
Anywho, all you got now is anoversized garbage bucket. Empty it outand start over, adding lots of shredded leaves to the mix—about fourparts shredded leaves to each part kitchen waste. You've actuallybeen hoarding the wrong half of the equation—it's the leaves that turninto compost; your kitchen scraps simply provide the food that fuelsthe transformation. In fact, you can compost shredded leaves all bythemselves. As you learned, you can't do that with just green waste.
Teddy: Shredded leaves are also oneof the absolute best mulches; theyprevent weeds better than wood chips or shredded bark—without breedingthose dreaded house-staining fungi of which you are already acquainted.And they're FREE!!!
But Shred Them You Must
Whole leaves mat down when they getwet, smothering 'underground'plants like Spring bulbs and herbaceous perennials. (You COULD usewhole leaves to mulch bare ground, but it looks arf-ill.) And wholeleaves take FOREVER to break down in a pile, bin or barrel, preventingthe mixture from heating up and becoming compost. Shred those leavesup, however, and you'll create the perfect mulch and compost makings!
My favorite way to do this is with aleaf blower. Yes, most people DOjust use these machines to blow their leaves onto the neighbor's lawn.But almost all blowers have a reverse setting, and attachments thatallow you to suck those leaves up into a shoulder bag or other handycontainer. AND a built-in shredder minces up those leaves so well itreduces their volume by—at least—a factor of ten, allowing you tostore—at least--ten bags worth of whole leaves in just one bag! At least! So quit blowing and start sucking!
Or make compost with your lawnmower!Sky: Running over your leaves witha mulching mower is a great idea; that combination of pulverized grassclippings and leaves makes a fine Fall feeding for your lawn. But youalso need to be sucking and shredding (or "S & S" as we like tocall it around the office) the leaves that 'Fall' in other areas foryour compost needs. Get it? "Fall"? WAKE UP PEOPLE! THESE ARE THEJOKES!!!!
Sorry. Anyway, those of you whatalready fedyour lawn this Fall canuse a variation of this trick to make instant compost. Just let a layerof leaves collect on your lawn and then mow over top of them, baggingup that perfect mixture of leaves and clippings as you go. Empty thebags into an open container with lots of airflow, and it'll turn intosuper-premium compost by Spring.
But don't do this if—likeTeddy!—you've committed the (completelyunnecessary!) chemical herbicide sin. Yes, Ted—your clippings arelikely toxic to plants.
OK—back to mulching. It's veryappropriate that Halloween—my favoriteholiday—is right around the corner, because wood chips, shredded bark,and root mulches can be as frightening as a gruesome ghoul when theybreed 'shotgun' or 'artillery' fungus. As Teddy knows too well, thesefungi shoot spores that permanently stain cars and homes within 30 feetof the mulch what bred them. (You'll find all the details in OhioState's Extension bulletin on problem mulches, which has been postedunder "Mike's Tips" at our website for years. (Here's the link: http://ohioline.osu.edu/hyg-fact/3000/3304.html)
You can avoid this expensive andaggravating problem by using shreddedleaves instead. They look just as nice as wood mulch, don't breeddestructive fungi, are much better for your plants—and best of all,they're free! (Have I mentioned that part yet?) Shred and bag a bigbatch every weekend and you'll have a year's supply in no time.
Oh—no matter WHAT kind of mulch youuse, never run it all the way up tothe house (that would provide cover for traveling termites), never letthe mulch actually touch a plant stem or tree trunk, and never applymore than a two inch layer for any reason.
You Bet Your Garden ©2004 Mike McGrath
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