By Lucy Harrell
Her name was Lucille—I called her Mommy Cille- she loved her garden-it was her place to escape –with me by her side. Lucky me– to have learned so much from such a sage—and I was lucky enough to have her with me until my 48th year.
She never went shopping for plants or garden products-she divided our perennials and collected annual seed for the next years planting. She traded plants and seeds with neighbors and we put everything we didn’t use or share in the compost piles-she had several different piles-that she made for different types of plants –these were her only garden products. She grew her food crops in with her flowers and they benefited from each other. She shared her knowledge with everyone and was always interested in learning more. Even though the times changed- she never changed the way she gardened because it was already the best way-natures way.
I keep to the same kind of gardening that she taught me for the same reasons. Whenever anyone asks me what the best compost is-my answer is always the same—“the compost that you make yourself”.
Composting is not hard-so forget all those steps and rules that some books put you through-keep it simple and let it make in it’s own time—faster is not better even when it comes to compost. To follow is how I have always made my compost – Remember-as simple as you can make it –is your best way. That means pile it up on the ground. Never let compost lean up on a wooden structure—so to keep it from doing this use wire panels or chicken wire–also if you need to define or separate your piles-or keep it contained — wire is best for good air flow.
Best Location—anywhere convenient to your gardening practices and / or close enough to use it often—shade in
Texas is best for the sake of your soil life.
You need 4 basic things for a great simple compost pile – Nitrogen, Carbon, Air & Water(all of these things are free- or at least you already have them– no shopping needed-do not add products called compost starters)
Nitrogen – Wet or Green Contents – green leaves-food scrapes- (veggies and fruit) –coffee/ tea grounds,- egg shells,
Carbon – Dry or Brown Contents-dry leaves,-dry grass, (if needed for dry material -shredded newspaper will do
in pinch). Always cover wet / green with brown / dry and this will eliminate any common complaints about compost-it will not smell and it will not be yucky-or attract critters.
Water– add once a week in shade—more often in sun—if you are getting fire ant problems—it is too dry- add water and treat with Nature’s Guide Fire Ant Killer
Air- add by poking holes with a turner or loosening as best you can if congested –usually this is not needed–if your pile is too congested you are keeping it too wet.
Build your pile by layering nitrogen and carbon-remember-always top off with carbon. Stop adding to the pile at 3 feet and start a new one. The reason for this is- too tall a pile will be too heavy and restrict air-and water distribution much needed for the soil life inside the pile.
It does not matter how wide you make your make your piles but 3’ tall X 3’ wide is an easy to handle size.
I encourage you to have 3 spaces for piles if it’s possible—that way you have 2 extra spaces to start with- to store leaves when you first rake them-and by the time your first pile is built –one of the extra spaces will be empty and ready for the next pile-and so on.
You will know that your first pile is ready when it looks like good rich dirt ( completely broken down on its own in its own good time) –remember -rushing compost with high nitrogen starters is not a good thing to do.
With the simple wire structures like in the pictures-you can just lift the wire up to get to the made compost.
The next step is the best step—feed your plants with your own home made compost. YUMMMMMMMMM!!!
You can still have specialty blends of compost even though it’s homemade –you just have to learn how to appreciate what nature has already provided—instead of throwing her gifts away. Weeds are full of nutrients and we tend to only look at them as pests.
Many people tell you not to add weeds to the compost pile or you will get more weeds in the garden —not true if you know how to gather and use the nutrient filled plants without adding the seeds to the pile. When you pull weeds-place them in a box or other container that will not allow the seeds to fall through it. Put them in a dry dark place for a few days to dry completely- like in the back of a garage or shed-away from light if possible. This simple process does several things—the darkness allows the weeds to dry with less nutrient loss—the dry place allows the weeds to dry completely-so it can’t root in the pile—the box will collect all of the fallen weed seeds-so they won’t sprout in the pile. Remove the dried weeds to use in the pile and discard the seeds in the trash. Add the dried weeds to a regular pile as I describe below to make the piles full of trace elements-and more nutritious for your plants.
Adding garden herbs to the piles are also a way to boost their nutrient value. The following recipes will help you to
have the best compost available for everything you grow.
Prescription Composting using herbs and select weeds
Green / Wet Ingredients- Nitrogen + trace
Food Scraps or Green Grass
Vegetable Scraps , Fruit Scraps , Coffee Grounds, Egg Shells
Fresh Comfrey leaves—also adds NPK , Potassium, Calcium, and Potash—Plant a comfrey just for this reason and harvest it every month during the season-as often as 5 times a year from March to November. Cut it to the ground-throw it on the pile and cover it with dry material. Comfrey likes morning sun or bright shade.
Brown / Dry Ingredients- Carbon +trace
Dry Leaves, Dry Grass, in a pinch torn newspaper
Only use Select Weeds ( dry these first-best to use a box )
excellent source of Calcium
Copper, Iron , Potassium, Phosphorus
Magnesium, Potassium, Calcium
All plants would benefit from the above ingredients-especially food crops, roses, daylilies, hydrangeas, azaleas and all other high feeders.
Bananas and egg shells are good to add to the piles too but can even offer more direct benefit when added to shallow holes just outside the root zones of plants-cover the holes after adding.
chopped up banana peel & egg shells
Sprouted cantaloupe planted on a hill with egg shells & chopped banana peels dug in for a snack later to add the needed nutrients that will be composted and ready for fruit development.
Banana Peels carry large amounts of potassium and phosphorus and trace amounts of magnesium, sulfur, calcium and nitrogen—
Egg Shells are full of slow release calcium & magnesium.
Another way to use the nutrients from egg shells—My grandmother always saved the water that she boiled eggs in to
use it as a soil drench after it cooled. This added more readily available calcium to the soil. Choose a different plant each daydon’t over do this in heavy clay soil. Added more often to sandy soils is of great benefit-these soils tend to leach nutrients faster.
Her potato water was used to either polish the silver –or poured around plants that needed more iron or copper like most food
crops , hydrangeas and roses. Symptoms of the need for iron and/or copper are yellowing leaves with green veins.
She saved all water that she used to cook fresh vegetables to cool off and use in the garden. ( this water had no oils like butter
or a lot of salt added to it.) Many think of this as waste water- not worth saving—but it is better than any expensive packaged amendment that you would shop for. She considered these her pots of gold- so do I.
Dried Coffee Grounds, tea leaves ( tea bags too) are all good added to piles- but can also be used to bring certain nutrients & trace elements straight to the garden floor around plants that particularly like and need them. If adding these leftover grounds or bags directly to the garden soil under plants-be sure to dry them completely in the sun first to kill any fungal that is there. Coffee & tea leaves tend to grow fungal (like rust) once heated in hot water-and left wet-this can affect some plants that we grow – especially hydrangeas.
Dried coffee is really good added to the floor of hydrangeas , azaleas and roses and any other plant that prefers more acid soil—just be sure to dry the used grounds in the sun-completely ( this will kill any existing fungal)-and spread them at the drip line of the plant to make a nice enriched weak tea each time water is applied-(re-wetting the grounds will not create a fungal problem if you dried them well before applying them)
Tea leaves –which will consist of tea plants and herbs are full of nutrients. My grandmother often used loose tea—but tea bags too—either way left the leaves left over after the drink was gone. These too were dried and used either in the garden or in her house plants. Leaves offer different benefits depending on the plants and herbs used.
Black tea leaves –as with coffee—add acid to the soil-and enable the intake of other nutrients –especially good for clay soils and house plants.
Green tea leaves are more neutral and balanced but full of nutrients themselves . All plants benefit.
Herbal tea leaves add small amounts of vitamins and produce lovely smells when you water house plants.
If you have left over tea itself- use it to water your house plants—use it as soon as the tea has cooled or that day —it will mold after a while if left out ( because of the oils in the plants). I hope that sharing this information with you will cause you pleasure -and help give you more knowledge and appreciation of natures gifts. Love & Luck , Lucy Harrell