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Is composting really worth it? Here are 3 things to know about composting in the garden

Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Yew Dell Botanical Gardens Executive Director

Well . . . you knew it was coming . . . and it finally hit. If you were hoping beyond hope that those last few green and rock-hard tomatoes would magically turn into truly vine-ripened beauties, that ship sailed at approximately 4:32am last Tuesday morning. That’s when area temperatures dropped below the freezing mark for the first time of the season, taking any promise of a last, fresh-from-the-garden BLT along with them.

But of course, the first freeze of the season doesn’t mean the garden season is over.

If you’re still nursing along cabbage, Brussels sprouts or other cool season crops, the last few days of coolish weather are nothing to worry about. They’ll take it in stride. But if you’re a warm weather veggie gardener, the last week will have meant the end to the tomatoes, peppers and last few zucchini. 

 

Whether your garden season ended this week, or you plan to stretch it a few more weeks, it all eventually comes to an end – that time of the year when we start to look forward to planting those first peas in cold, damp spring soil or even nestling those first few tomato transplants into warm, post-Derby soil. But either way, there’s some work you can do now to make things better and easier next spring.

 

If you’re a regular reader of this column, you can probably already predict the direction of my primary recommendation for prepping your garden for next spring. It’s the same default direction I head whenever I’m talking about soil quality, soil fertility and just about anything else related to the interaction between a plant and its soil – compost.

Fall is the perfect time to add a generous top dressing of compost to your vegetable garden.

 Assuming you have a reasonable garden soil, one that you’ve managed and tended for a while so that it is at least a bit better than what you started with, adding a warm, 4 to 6-inch blanket of well composted organic matter is the perfect recipe for even better garden soil next spring.

Compost is that magical substance that at the same time both improves drainage during wet times and keeps soils from drying out when the weather turns hot and dusty. Properly composted organic matter also forms the perfect slow-release fertilizer that will feed both your plants and soil microbes that are such an essential part of a healthy soil ecosystem.

So what exactly does a fall layer of compost do for next spring’s garden?

1- Fertility

The nutrients locked up in compost have to be released into the soil solution (the thin layer of water that surrounds soil and organic matter particles) in order to be absorbed by plants. That nutrient release is accomplished primarily through the action of soil microbes – and it takes time. Adding the compost now allows that slow process to proceed through the fall, winter and early spring so that some of those nutrients are available when you (and your plants) need them next year.

2- Soil Structure

As that organic compost breaks down over time, the other class of compounds released is a host of organic acids. These compounds leach down through the soil and over time (we’re talking years . . . not days or weeks) help to create the macro structure that is essentially impossible to build any other way. This process creates large conglomerations of mineral and organic particles to build improved drainage and aeration throughout the soil profile. 

3- Spring Access

Dropping 6 inches of compost on the surface of the vegetable garden now means that next spring you’ll have a nice, fluffy top layer rather than the slick, muddy mess we usually encounter when we get out there way too early in spring to “prep” the garden. Compost doesn’t stick to the bottom of your garden shoes. It drains and dries out sooner meaning it warms faster and is ready for planting earlier than plain old wet mineral soil. Planting into that layer of compost is also an excellent part of what’s called a “no dig” garden regime that can be very beneficial for your soil and plants. 

Of course, there’s another fall composting benefit that sits outside the ecological health status of your garden and aligns more with the aesthetic health of your yard – how it looks. I know I’m not the only one out there who more or less abandon’s the vegetable garden this time of year. There’s a few leftover stalks from some prized heirloom tomato or two – or remnants of the trellised beans – that just sit there all through the winter. Sure, it’s not what you would want out there . . . but it’s just so cool and rainy . . . it’ll all fall over and go away . . . eventually . . . 

Getting out there this fall, cleaning it all up and finishing it all off with a nice clean layer of compost makes the whole winter vegetable garden look more like something you planned and less like you were chased inside by a hoard of marauding geese on their way out of town.

This article was originally submitted to the Courier Journal on October 31, 2023.

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