Tip of the Day — Oct. 20

Fallen leaves make great mulch and, best of all, they’re free. Just be sure to shred them before adding to your garden beds because whole leaves can form a mat, preventing water and oxygen from penetrating to the soil below.

Easy or hard way, composting is worth it

Don’t take your fall leaves to the curb. Compost them. Photo by Kathie Rowell

You can do it the easy way.

You can do it the hard way.

But either way, you really should build a compost pile.

It probably won’t surprise you that I choose the easy way. That means I just pile leaves  in a couple of bins and wait. Compost happens whether you help it along or not. It just happens very slowly.

Those who choose to do it the hard way get finished compost much quicker, and they can include weeds or diseased plants into their piles without fear of disastrous results. A well-managed pile generates enough heat to kill weed seeds and disease organisms.

Even though it’s doubtful I’ll change my slothful ways, I learned how to do it the “right” way at a composting talk a few years ago by now-retired LSU AgCenter horticulturist Denyse Cummins. .

Denyse defined composting as the controlled decomposition of plant materials and described herself as a fanatic about keeping what grows in her yard and turning it into garden gold instead of sending it to the dump.

“I don’t ever have to buy anything in a bag from a nursery because I make it myself,” she said. “I’m cheap and I like the idea of using everything.”

So what can be composted?

Anything that was ever alive, Denyse said. That includes leaves, grass clippings and vegetable scraps, but also things like fish heads, crawfish remains and egg shells. Just be aware that adding materials with the potential to smell can attract animals — and really steam the neighbors.

“Anything alive is going back to dust and composting is just controlling it,” she said.

Here are some of Denyse’s tips:

  • Choose a site near a water source and away from trees because their roots will invade the nice, rich soil.
  • Gather your material and plan to use a formula of 4 parts brown stuff to 1 part green stuff. Browns  which supply carbon, can be leaves, twigs, ground bark, shredded paper. Greens, which supplies nitrogen, can be grass clippings, vegetable peelings, weeds, hay or alfalfa pellets.
  • Shred everything to make it easier for the microorganisms that transform the waste to digest it.
  • Build the pile a little at a time. For instance, layer  a lot of brown with a little green, water and then mix together. Keep adding and mixing layers until all material is used.
  • Create a big pile — about 4 feet high. Denyse said the number one reason for failure is the pile is too small. Lacking leaves? Drive around the neighborhood on trash day and grab your neighbors’ castoffs.
  • Create a dent in the top of the pile to divert rain into it.
  • A properly built compost pile should heat up immediately and can reach 130 to 140 degrees in the center, even in winter. After two weeks, stick a piece of metal about one-third of the way into the pile. If it’s hot when you pull it out, the microorganisms are still  happily chowing down. If  the metal comes out cold, knock down the pile, turn the material and rebuild it because the microorganisms have used up the nitrogen and oxygen near them  If it doesn’t heat back up, it could be lack of water (knock it down, wet it and rebuild), lack of nitrogen (knock it down and add more grass clippings or alfalfa pellets) or too much water (just let it drain).

Compost is ready when the large pieces have decomposed and what’s left is dark, crumbly and has an earthy smell. You can use the compost as it makes, or wait until the entire pile is ready. Adding it to your garden beds will add nutrients and improve the structure of your soil.

And it’s free.

So, what will it be? The easy way or the hard way. Either way, your garden wins.

Tip of the Day — Oct. 18

For the best possible success rate, figure out your growing conditions before deciding what to plant. For instance, if your soil is alkaline, azaleas aren’t your best choice. If your yard is in deep shade, forget roses. While plants might survive such conditions, they’ll never thrive like they would in the environment they prefer.

Tip of the Day — Oct. 17

To reduce the chance of transplant shock when moving a plant in your landscape, do it on a cool or cloudy day during the plant’s dormant season. Dig as large a root ball as you can safely handle, being as gentle as possible with the root system. If possible, have the new hole — at least twice as wide as the root ball — ready in order to minimize the amount of time before replanting. On large or mature plants, prune foliage by about one-third. Water immediately and make sure the soil doesn’t dry out while the plant settles into its new home.