Composting and other ideas to improve your soil

A simple way to improve your garden is to improve the soil.

A simple way to improve your garden is to improve the soil.

This can be done by adding organic matter in the form of compost, rotted manure or peat moss. The first two contain nutrients that will slowly leach into the soil. At the same time the organic matter improves the structure of the soil. When mixed with sandy soil, humus helps hold the moisture. In heavy clay soils it still holds moisture but the large particles improve drainage and aeration making the soil softer and easier for the roots to penetrate.

In nature, last year’s dead top growth and leaves are left in place to slowly decompose improving the soil and feeding the plants. Gardeners remove last years top growth as it looks messy. A good alternative is to compost the garden waste and return it to the garden. Fall is a great time to start a compost as there is an abundance of materials available. Composting is simple science not an exact one.

People that have not composted before, or have had problems in the past might want to be precise in the materials they use. A good method is to start with a six-inch (15-cm) layer of brown or carbon rich materials then add a one-inch two-cm) layer of green or nitrogen rich material. Mix these two layers together adding enough water that the mixture has the consistency of a wrung out sponge. Continue adding to the pile by alternating the layers and mixing when the material becomes available.

The ratio of six parts carbon to one part nitrogen is approximate but gives an indication of what is needed to get a compost pile started. When nitrogen is in short supply, add a handful of ammonium sulfate or compost starter to get the process started. Once the pile is hot the ratio is less important.

There are times when both materials are not available to compost; save the excess until it is needed.

Turning the compost regularly, at least once every two weeks, adds the oxygen that is needed for quick decomposition. A compost pile can be made and left to decompose but it will take much longer to decompose.

Cutting garden waste and kitchen scraps into small pieces will speed up the process. Large items, like corn stocks will take years to decompose unless they are cut or chipped. They should not be placed whole in the compost.

Not all organic materials should be composted. Avoid any fatty material as they attract rodents and become rancid. Remove seed heads from plants or the compost will be weedy. Never compost plants that have been sprayed with chemicals as residue will be left in the compost. And plants sprayed with chemicals.

Small amounts of clean shredded paper and sawdust can be used in the compost.

There are many different styles of composters available for sale or that can be made. Look for a design that allows for easy turning, has a good air flow, keep rodents out and contents in.

Another way to compost is to dig a trench in the garden and fill it in with compost material. Be sure to cover that part of the trench after each addition. It might take a couple years to break down but it is possible to plant on top of the trench.

Place the compost in a sunny area that is out of sight but convenient. Ones that are hard to access are rarely used. Fall always has an abundance of materials for a compost. Make use of the materials as opposed to discarding it.

Linda Tomlinson is a horticulturalist and educator living in Rocky Mountain House. You can contact her at

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