Feed Your Soil and Organic Diet: Compost

[This article was first published in The Gateway Gardener September 2006 issue]

By Patrick Geraty

an image of a mulched azalea gardenGood nutrition continues to be a hot topic these days, with the popularity of organic foods skyrocketing and Americans from every walk of life increasingly sensitive to the specifics of their daily diet.

It’s the same in home gardening and lawn care.  More hobbyists are questioning long-held beliefs about how best to prepare and nurture the soil that sustains their prized plantings and turf.  The result is that a natural product older than humankind – compost – is gaining long-deserved acknowledgement as the ultimate soil amendment.

Composting is a natural phenomenon that occurs continuously in soil. It is nature’s way of usefully recycling grass clippings, leaves and other vegetative debris.  Scientifically speaking, composting is a biological process during which microorganisms alter the structure of organic matter to produce the combination of humus and minerals we call compost.

Compost delivers four major benefits to the user, all of which benefit the environment.

Compost is economical. A one-time application of compost can improve the effects of fertilizer used on lawns and gardens.  Compost can hold six times its weight in water, thereby reducing the need for irrigation.  These factors reduce maintenance and labor.

Compost improves plant/turf quality.  Compost reduces transplant shock and decreases plant stress response to drought, disease and insects.  Because of the intense heat generated in compost piles, compost contains no weeds, insects or insect eggs/ larvae.  A big plus for serious flower gardeners is that compost has been found to keep moisture levels in flower beds too high for ants.  Compost also reduces salt damage and provides nutritional balance.

Compost strengthens soil structure. Compost reduces the compaction of heavy soil, enhances sandy soil and increases both top-soil and soil fertility while rebuilding worn-out soil.  Over time, compost makes any type of soil easier to work.

The benefits of compost are long-lasting. While rain and watering cause chemical fertilizers to leach out of the soil, compost binds with the soil and continues to release its nutrients for several years.

Compost can be used in a variety of ways.

  • For a one-time upgrade of turf, make a 30- to 40-cubic-yard-per-acre application in fall and winter for winter-type grasses; in spring for summer grasses.
  • For continuing maintenance of turf, make a 15- to 20-cubic-yard-per-acre application on the same schedule cited above.
  • For soil preparation in planting beds, add one to three cubic yards per 1,000 square feet.  Difficult soils will require the higher amount.
  • When used as a mulch around the base of annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs, a three- to six-inch layer of compost helps suppress weeds, reduce soil erosion, conserve moisture, keep soil cool in summer and prevent soil heaving in winter.  Additionally, a compost-topped soil creates a favorable environment for earthworms, which aerate the soil.

While using compost won’t cause noticeable changes overnight, the difference between improved and unimproved lawns and garden beds will be noticeable by the end of the first growing season.  Where compost is incorporated, better soil texture, more worms and sturdier, healthier plants will be evident.

Are you favorably inclined toward things organic?  Then get hands-on with a bag of compost.

Patrick Geraty is president of  St. Louis Composting, which operates the largest composting facility in the state of Missouri and is the largest composter in the St. Louis region, recycling more than one-third of all yard waste generated in St. Louis County.  It operates composting facilities in Valley Park, Mo. and Millstadt, Ill.  For more, key www.stlcompost.com.