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Using Compost to Nourish Your Garden

Using compost in your garden

This post is from Becca Stallings of The Earthling’s Handbook, with photographs by Nicholas Efran (age 12) and Dan Efran.

After setting up your thrifty 3-bin composting system and getting into the habit of collecting kitchen scraps to compost, it’s time to start using this great homemade fertilizer in your garden!

How exactly do you use compost? And how can compost help you solve problems like poor soil, uncooperative weather, or a treacherous hillside?

This wasn’t the spring I thought it would be.

It’s been a weird spring here in Pennsylvania. After a mild winter, we had a brief warm spell…and then snow in April, weeks of chilly dampness, frost in May, and lows in the 50s right through Memorial Day!

RELATED: Check out Katie’s review of minimalist boots by Xero for the snow. 

By this time in a typical year, digging into my compost bins turns up so many earthworms, it’s hard to believe they can survive at such density! It looks like half the volume of the compost has been converted into big pink worms! I was sure I’d get some pictures of my compost-processing pink pals to show you in this article.

But the cold weather has kept the worms hiding underground much later than usual. I wasn’t finding any to pose for photos until I lifted up Bin #3 (the ready-to-use compost) just after a rainstorm.

Using compost in your garden under bin worms

Earthworms and their colleagues, roly-polies (also known as pillbugs, woodlice, or potato bugs) had been quietly working in the cozy darkness just beneath the bin. They were eating the bits of compost that came down through the drainage holes and pooping out worm castings, the nutrient-packed ideal fertilizer!

I happily transferred the critters to Bin #2 (compost in progress) and mixed the castings into the finished compost I was about to use in the garden. I hope that the worms and roly-polies will get to work chomping all through my compost bin and raising large families…but if they’re shivering in there, they can easily tunnel down to ground level again and come up later.

What if the worms hadn’t come back? I would have asked my friends if they had some spare worms in their yards, or I could have gone to the park and looked under dead leaves in the forest. Moving wild animals a short distance in your local area won’t cause problems, while importing animals can bring an invasive species, disease, or parasite to your ecosystem. I once bought ladybugs by mail, and that was unintentionally exciting, but it’s not the best way to obtain beneficial species.

Compost Bin #3 also gave me another surprise on this rainy day.

Using compost in your garden seedlings

Sometimes, seeds from your food will sprout in the compost. I’m not sure what these are, but they look like some kind of bean or squash. Let’s see if they will grow in another place! I simply lifted off the top layer of compost with most of the seedlings and put it on a bare patch in the garden. Then I tucked in the roots. Two days later, the plants are happy and growing.

Maybe I can grow an amazing volunteer vine like my parents did last summer! They had spread some compost on a bare patch in their lawn, and this vine appeared. (That’s my dad, for scale.) I think they said they got 4 squash, very tasty ones.

Using compost in your garden dad vine

My bin also sprouted two varieties of tiny mushrooms! We’ll assume those are not edible mushrooms. Most likely, spores blew in on the wind and grew when the weather was right, and they’ll disappear when the soil dries again.

After these welcome distractions, I scooped the finished compost into my utility tub and started putting it to use.

Using compost in your garden utility tub

3 Ways to Use Compost

There are a few basic ways compost can be used in the garden:

  • Spread compost on the ground and mix it into the topsoil, creating an area to plant seeds.
    • If your soil quality is poor, buy a bag of potting soil or plain dirt to mix in.
  • After digging a hole for a plant, partly fill the hole with compost, then top it with the soil you dug out.
    • This works for potted plants, too: compost on the bottom and potting soil on top.
  • Use a layer of compost in sheet mulch to create good growing soil in a previously depleted area.

I’ve been turning parts of my backyard into flowerbeds by spreading compost each spring and a blanket of dead leaves each fall on top of the hard clay soil. Gradually, these areas are developing better soil quality.

The first flowerbed got a bit larger each year, and then I started this one. Irises, a hydrangea bush, two rose of Sharon bushes, spearmint, and ajuga are growing there now, interspersed with the wild strawberries and violets that have always been in our yard.

Using compost in your garden spreading pulling

But there was a patch where nothing pretty had taken root yet, just random weeds that get very tall if you let them. Pulling up weeds after rain is a great way to loosen the soil so your new plants can grow! When a weed brings up a big ball of soil, crumble it off into your planting area before you discard the weed.

We toss all our weeds onto the hillside below the pipe that drains rainwater from the roofs of all 3 houses in our row. Getting a rain barrel (the large black cylinder next to the compost bins) helped to control erosion under the downspout, but before the first frost we have to drain the barrel and let the water go out of the pipe.

Giving it a heap of plant matter to push downhill helps to keep our hillside under our house! We also throw sticks down there when they fall off the trees and when we prune our bushes.

Using compost in your garden weed rootball seeds

In this patch of enriched soil in my flower bed, I planted lots of different kinds of flower seeds, all mixed together. It’s Darwinian gardeningsomething is bound to bloom there!

Roses of Sharon keep coming up in our front yard. Several years ago, a seed must have blown from across the street, and a rose of Sharon grew between our sidewalk and the neighbor’s. We like that one. But its children keep taking root in the front yard.

We don’t want our front yard to be all bushes–but we could use more bushes in the back! Transplanting is easy.

All the roses of Sharon in our back yard were transplanted in previous years. I transplanted two more this spring. We decided we wanted tall plants growing alongside the rain barrel’s drainage hose to remind us not to step on it.

Simply push a trowel, pitchfork, or shovel straight down into the soil, a few inches away from the plant’s main stem. (I used a trowel because these plants were so small.) Dig up the plant, trying to get as many of its roots as possible–but if you break some roots, you haven’t killed it! Many plants will recover from a few broken roots.

Using compost in your garden digging clay worm

Next, in the place where you want the plant to grow, dig a hole at least as deep as the longest root.

While digging, notice the quality of your soil. The better it is, the less compost you need to add in this area.

Dark brown dirt is more nutritious than grayish dirt. Most plants prefer a soft, crumbly consistency to gritty sand or dense clay. If you find lumps of clay in your soil, crumble them into your compost Bin #1. Worms will mix the clay with other soil ingredients.

Finding worms in your soil is a good sign! When I dug down a few inches, I began to meet worms. I put some of them into my compost bins.

Using compost in your garden tiny bush planting bush

Hold your plant upright in the center of the hole. Scoop compost into the hole, then fill in some of the original dirt. Keep alternating layers until your hole is filled in. (For small plants like these, you might do just one layer of compost and one of dirt.)

Give plants plenty of water soon after transplanting, unless the soil is already very moist and you expect more rain the next day.

Take Advantage of Plants that Take Over!

Spearmint is tasty and smells good. It’s easy to grow. In fact, it’s too easy.

We planted 3 sprigs of spearmint in our front yard 5 years ago. It spread more every year. Now we want to rein it in to leave room for some other species!

Last fall, I sheet-mulched two patches of my front yard. This somewhat reduced the amount of mint that came up in those areas, but mint is very tenacious!

Much too much mint had grown right next to one of the sheet-mulched areas, in front of the gas meter and the privet bush that we can’t dig up because it’s over the gas line.

That big, boring bush looks much prettier when morning glory vines grow all over it. But too much mint will shade the morning glories as they come up, preventing them from growing long vines.

Using compost in your garden too much mint

See the baby morning glories at the bottom right of the photo? There were more back there between the mint stalks. I needed to give them some light!

Meanwhile, the mint I’d transplanted to the back yard last summer and earlier in May was doing very well. But the steeply sloped part of the yard needed more plants, with strong roots to stabilize the soil.

Mint spreads by running roots just below the soil surface that send up more stems. The very traits that make this plant problematic in a cultivated garden might make it great for covering a problem area!

We sure do have plenty of mint to experiment with.

Using compost in your garden mint root tub tree

I dug up all the unwanted spearmint, trying to get all its roots out. It’s difficult! Those roots really hang on to the soil and tend to snap when pulled. But experience has shown that just an inch or two of root is enough to survive transplanting.

After removing as much mint as I could, I carefully pressed the tiny morning glory seedlings back into the soil.

First, I planted mint around the base of a tree that is right at the edge where the flat part of our yard drops off into a steep hill. Heavy rains and melting snow dig under that tree’s roots. We don’t want it to fall over! Can spearmint save a tree? We will find out.

Before I show the last steps in this gardening spree, I have to explain the unusual challenges of working in my yard.

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Gardening on a Cliff

The flat part of our back yard is at the floor level of our basement. But that ground level is much higher than most places you can see from there. In the background of some of my photos, you may have noticed rooftops near my ground level.

Behind the flat yard, the ground level drops about 10 feet at about a 60-degree angle. At the very back of the yard is a fence on top of a retaining wall. That wall is 3 stories high. At the bottom is a parking lot shared by several businesses.

That’s why we don’t want a tree to fall from our yard!! It could do serious damage to people or cars down there.

So, the first floor of our house is approximately 5 stories above that parking lot, and we have this crazy steep hill! We don’t go down there much.

But we keep trying to get more plants growing on the slope to make a proper understory for our little urban forest. We want it to look green and pretty from below, control erosion, absorb carbon dioxide from the traffic, and be a healthy environment.

Using compost in your garden slope

To carry compost down a cliff, you’ll want a smaller container than my utility tub. I use extra plant pots, one for my compost and one for my plants, so that I can carry everything in one trip.

But I need my hands for climbing! Getting up or down the cliff is like using a ladder–a ladder that sometimes crumbles suddenly! I’ve often found myself clinging to the trees as my feet slide out from under me. I actually fell all the way down the hill once, and I don’t want to do it again.

So, I place my pots in flat spots, and then I climb down below them. I can move them as necessary to be within reach of my work area. Once I get each foot in a firm place, I stay there as long as possible, turning my upper body to reach different planting spots.

Some of the plants already growing on the hill are pachysandra, euonymous, honeysuckle, and Japanese spurge–all groundcover plants. They haven’t spread as well as we hoped, possibly because they don’t get enough light.

I’ve also transplanted roses of Sharon on the hill, but because of their height they tend to lean over. Those thin trunks you see near me belong to the biggest rose of Sharon bush–it’s happy enough to bloom each year, but it is tipping precariously. I have to remember not to grab it when I’m slipping because it might just pull up and fall on me!

Transplanting spearmint onto the slope, I found that my smallish pot of compost was enough. The soil quality really looked good! Every autumn, we gather fallen leaves from the sidewalks and gutters all along our block and toss them down the hill. This is another form of composting!

The pile of weeds and sticks under the downspout, which I mentioned earlier, is also a kind of compost heap. We try to keep the sticks in that one area so that the rest of the slope is free of scratchy stuff that would make climbing uncomfortable.

Hostas and ferns grow well in shade and help stabilize soil. We’ve planted a lot of them over the years, but squirrels have eaten some of them! I ordered a discounted “grab bag” of 12 hostas that I was going to plant for this article, but it didn’t arrive in time….

Food Scraps Fuel Our Forest’s Future

Using compost in your garden

Although not everything I’ve planted in my yard has grown well, I enjoy experimenting with different plants. Taking risks with gardening is easier when your fertilizer is free!

When I plant things in an area where I planted before, I can see the difference between areas that have been enriched with compost–even two or three years earlier–and those that haven’t. I love knowing that our apple cores and kale stems are helping our garden grow!

And even though this spring isn’t going quite the way I planned, I’m growing some plants and enjoying them! Nearly all of that mint I transplanted is looking lively three days later. The roses of Sharon look happy, too.

And where I ripped out mint in the front yard, most of the morning glory seedlings survived and have grown visibly already, and three times as many new morning glory plants have appeared! It’s going to be a beautiful summer.

Don’t miss the first two posts in this series:

Ready to get your hands dirty? Here are some more Gardening Posts from KS: 

What have you grown with compost? What are the exciting challenges in your garden? If you’re in Pittsburgh, do you want some spearmint?!
Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

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