Today’s gleaning comes from Garden Rant from back in July, but it is great info. Please go read Susan Harris’ article—Dead trees! Killer compost! Thanks to DuPont and their herbicide Imprelis.
Susan warns us about DuPont’s new herbicide, and that is wonderful, but what else she is warns (without really saying it in words) is: Be careful where you get your compost! I have had this topic on my mind for about 6 weeks now, and just haven’t had time to sit and type up my thoughts. Thank you Susan for giving me the nudge!
Commit to Composting
I try to get my clients to commit to having a composting area in their yard. In all but the very smallest yards, there is usually enough room for composting. Some people hesitate when I plan several-to-many deciduous trees and shrubs in their new landscape asking, “this is going to be difficult to maintain, right?” “What do you mean by difficult?” I ask. “Well,” they say, “I’ll have to be careful about removing the leaves from the plants below the trees, and and I’ll have to collect up the leaves, and move them to the compost area. And it might look messy.”
Ummmmmm… yes, gardening (and having a garden) requires work (or money to pay others to do the work for you). And yes, sometimes it can be messy.
But I digress…
The real point of this post is to warn you gardeners out there that not all compost is the same. HORRORS! Yes, it’s one MORE thing to have to learn and understand. Anyone who said gardening is easy was not being honest.
You need to be very careful of the source materials from which the compost is made. As Susan said, the compost (from her story—that damaged the trees) was made from yard waste that had been sprayed with DuPont’s new product, Imprelis. And the chemical did not break down in the composting process, thus tainting it, and damaging whatever the compost was placed around. Imagine if this had been in veggie beds. :-o
This is truly disheartening news for me. And it certainly is one more thing that keeps me on my toes—watching for stories like this so I can warn you to ask questions and take appropriate precautions to buy only good, healthy compost.
And it seems to me that the best way for you to know what is in your compost is to make it yourself—or truly know your provider and what they used to make it. If you can’t make it yourself, ask your provider if they can guarantee that their product has no residual pesticide in it. If they can’t, buy your compost elsewhere, even if it’s much more expensive. This is why making it yourself is so cost-effective. Home-made compost is FREE. A well-designed ornamental garden containing roughly equal proportions of conifers and other evergreen trees/shrubs, deciduous trees/shrubs, and perennials and/or annuals can provide you with plenty of fall leaves that work for you as mulch.
Recently a friend of mine was in dire need of mulch for the bare dirt areas of her yard. I advised her that mulch / compost was good at keeping weeds down, keeping moisture in the soil, and that over time it could help improve the soil quality in the areas she wished to develop into ornamental beds. So she ordered a load of compost from a local provider. I helped her spread it, but something seemed off.
Compost should look like good, rich, black soil. This stuff sort of did, but it was extremely fine in texture and had a distinct bark aroma. Compost is fine textured, but not extremely fine like sand. And when you can smell bark (wood), it means the wood matter in the mix is not fully composted. Finished compost will have a sweetish earthy aroma, but you’ll not be able to discern any particular other recognizable smells — like wood, ammonia, etc. The mere look and smell of this compost had raised my warning flags. But it would be all right since we were putting on top of the soil, and not incorporating it into the soil.
So I looked at the name of the product on the receipt, then looked that up at the provider’s web site. It turns out, this compost is made from 1/2 fir bark and 1/2 sand. HUH? I’m not sure of this compost’s intended use — the company says it’s low in fertility, and to use in situations where normal fertilization is practiced. But compost as I know it is decayed organic matter. And sand is not organic matter.
What is sand doing in compost? My friend’s soil was clay, and the last thing you want to add to clay is sand, because we all know that sand and clay are the ingredients in CONCRETE. If you want to make your clay soil even harder and more devoid of organic content, go ahead and add some sand. And… my friend says she can’t wear sandals or Crocs out in her garden without getting tons of teensy fir slivers in her feet. Don’t even THINK of gardening without gloves!
The Moral to This Story
Learn about compost and mulch. What they are. What they do. How they’re made. What ingredients are best for your intended use. How compost can be mulch, but mulch is not necessarily compost. For example: I’d use kitchen and yard waste completely finished compost to incorporate into a raised veggie bed; whereas for top-dressing on an ornamental bed composted leaves are wonderful. In fact, UN-composted fall leaves are just fine to use as top-dressing, too. They will compost in place just as they do in the forest. If you shred them (as in mow up the leaves and then just empty the mower bag onto your ornamental gardens), they will make leaf compost even more quickly.
Veggies need much more nutrient-rich soil than do ornamental beds. I generally incorporate a stronger nitrogen source like manure into vegetable gardens, but you don’t need much if you make good compost. For my ornamental beds, I prefer straight leaf compost (often called leaf mold, though it’s not mold). Just plain old composted fall leaves — nothing added. (If I don’t have enough leaves, I use partially-composted hemlock mulch — NO SLIVERS! — which is the same dark color and fine texture of leaf mold.)
So come on people! Embrace deciduous trees to produce compost to mulch your ornamental gardens. It’s free, it’s healthy (if you don’t use pesticides in your yard), it builds good soil, and, oh yeah, it’s sustainable. And we all want that, right?
A smart gardener is a good gardener (and vice versa), so please, ask questions. If you don’t know the right questions to ask, ask me. I can help.