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SUBMITTED by Marjorie Torelli, Western Finger Lakes Authority (1-Apr-2011)

We know that spring will really arrive with warm temperatures and greening lawns and trees. Already thoughts of gardens are sprouting in our thawing heads. This year, if you are not already doing so, compost is a great addition to your garden. The benefits are many and the downfalls few. Compost is very forgiving.

First, if you do not already have a compost pile, while you are walking around the yard examining the thawing lawn and swelling buds on trees and shrubs, now is a great time to pick out a spot for a compost pile. An area that will accommodate a 3 – 4 foot pile in circumference is adequate. Some sunlight is good and pick an area that does not stay soggy. Compost is like all growing things: It needs air, light and water to thrive.

There are several commercial compost containers available. A quick search through the catalogs or the home improvement store will turn up several options. Really, purchasing a large plastic box in which to pile the compost is not necessary. A simple chicken wire enclosure does the job equally well. If you are concerned about the look of a compost pile to your neighbors, use the compost pile fence as a trellis for some colorful vines. Even pole beans or cucumbers will dress up the enclosure.

In addition to an unnecessary expense, a plastic enclosure limits three essential ingredients to a compost pile; air, light and water. If the organic materials are locked behind solid plastic walls, no sunlight penetrates, rain is kept away, and air flow is minimal. All of these deficits make the compost process much less successful.

Second, using compost– and even established plants – is a great way to get glorious results without using chemical fertilizers. Compost has been shown to help plants establish better root systems, the best way to make sure they thrive. The microorganisms in compost also fight off disease. By adding a handful of mature compost to the soil when putting in vegetable or flower plants, you are adding micronutrients and microorganisms to the soil. No chemical fertilizer can do that. A top-dressing of compost will also help a lawn to stay green and healthy even during long dry spells.

It is important to read labels when purchasing compost or ask questions if it is being delivered in bulk. Sometimes it is not easy to discern whether the compost has been adequately cured or allowed to mature. If the compost is bagged, open the bag and check that the compost smells like moist earth. If it has any other odor, it may need to mature a bit more. It’s not a total loss. Just open the bags and allow it to “rest” for a month or so before putting it near plants. This will give you a chance to make sure that no weed seeds are hiding in the compost as well.

Making compost is a fun activity. This sentence is written by someone who has been called “the worm lady” – loudly – in public. But it really is fun to see waste products from the kitchen and the yard become rich, aromatic humus (Say “hyu-mus.”) It’s great to see the difference that compost makes in your yard and for your plants. For more information, please call the Western Finger Lakes Authority (1.800.724.3867) or go to our website, www.wfingerlakesauthority.org.

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