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Why are we supposed to compost in the fall?

Fall is upon us. The days are getting darker earlier and the night temperatures are dropping. It doesn’t mean we won’t get a blast of heat to remind us of the summer that is holding on for dear life as it slips into another September equinox, because inevitably, we will.

Pumpkin patch with sky above.

The calendar flipping over to September means that it is time again to compost the garden. We compost every spring and every fall. We have been told by every gardening magazine, book and journal forever that fall is the best time to compost the garden. The Old Farmers Almanac tells us this. Houzz, the online home renovation site tells us this. Even newspapers, like the SF Chronicle and LA Times tell us to compost in the fall.

Why? Why are we supposed to compost in the fall?

Because! That is what we do as gardeners. To me it seems like a lot of things that we do in the garden are because someone else told us to do it. Whether it’s the local garden club, a master gardener program, one of the ten zillion books on gardening, an HGTV show, dear old mom, or even our crazy Uncle Joe, it seems like we have a lot of input on what we should and should not do in our gardens.

I like the old school “live and die by the sword” method of gardening, meaning that we learn by doing. I don’t believe that most of the “experts” have as much experience as they would like us to believe. Personally, I always learn the most from my failures and take away a teeny tiny bit of wisdom when the things that I do in the garden start to click. I like to see success and growth that is repeatable year after year. I think that we can build better protocols and push our gardening and growing capabilities to new heights when we ourselves get to monitor how things actually work over time.

So, why are we composting?

Handful of Bu's Blend Biodynamic Compost out of the bag.
Handful of Bu's Blend Biodynamic Compost

We compost our gardens because the spring and summer have zapped the nutrients out of the ground. All of our plants uptake the nutrients from the soil during all of the stages of growth that they experience over the peak growing seasons. By composting with a good, finished compost, we are adding back the major and minor nutrients and trace minerals that the plants are going to need for any fall growth. We are also starting the process of winterizing the soil for the long season ahead.

By adding a clean source of organic matter to our gardens we are mimicking nature.

That’s the point of composting. We get to play the role of nature in our gardens. How Shakespearian!

William Shakespeare Portrait
William Shakespeare

The trees and plants in any natural setting drop their leaves and wind, rain, animals, even lightning break off twigs and branches that fall to the ground. All of these bits of nature, small to large pieces of organic matter start to decompose as earthworms, millipedes, mites, slugs and snails break them down into smaller, microscopic particulates that the bacteria and fungi feast on. When they poop they release all of the wonderful nutrients back into the soil that are locked up in the branches, leaves and twigs for uptake by plants. This process is called mineralization, and this is what we are trying to accomplish by composting. We are offering food for the microbes in the soil. This is the key to real organic gardening.

Close up of soil microbes
Soil Microbes

This leads to another really good reason to compost our gardens in the fall. By watering our raised beds filled with veggies, our fruit trees, our ornamentals, our rose gardens, our lawns, we are constantly flushing the nutrients and minerals into the aquifer, which is why we are always having to fertilize during the most dominant part of a plant or tree’s production. By composting, we are adding food for the microbes that in turn will leave food for our plants, trees, and shrubs as they need food.

“This form of gardening really makes all of the stuff we’ve been told for decades obsolete. The days of chemical and synthetic fertilizing are over, they’re dinosaurs, and the need to use “faux” organic products is really unnecessary.”

Triple Pro 15 Fertilizer
Triple 15

What does all of this mean?… You want to apply compost to everything in your garden. I mean EVERYTHING - in-ground beds and planters, raised beds, pots, containers, lawns… all of it.

Most people throw the industry recommended 1”-3” of compost down around the base of their plants and call it a day. Does nature drop leaf letter down around the base of the plants in the forest, or does decomposition happen everywhere? The soil… ALL OF THE SOIL… needs to have compost over it because what we are doing by composting is growing biology, by growing soil, by feeding the microbes. Remember, this is why we are composting. We are not composting to make the beds better for your prize begonias! That may happen and most likely will happen if we continue to feed the soil. We will have begonias that our neighbors who don’t heed this natural and true organic way of growing will NEVER have!

So, here is your ORGANC PROTOCOL for composting the fall garden. You want to put 1/2”-1" of the best organic compost you can find down over all of the soil in your garden and then water it in really well. Use this amount the first time you use it. Don’t flood it in, give it a gentle watering with your wand, try to mimic the rain. The compost that you are using should not look like wood (which is not compost, it is wood that has not finished composting). Then thereafter, you can dust your soil with 1/16" of compost every month or so.

Organic gardeners will want to shy away from ‘city waste” or green-waste compost that is collected by municipalities and given away for free, or sold very cheaply. It has pesticide, herbicide and fungicide residue in it. Remember, you get what you pay for!

Green waste compost truck unloading inputs
Green waste compost truck unloading inputs

Lastly, if you are gardening organically, do not use compost from animals that have been fed GMO feedstocks - corn, soy and alfalfa, as they have all been sprayed with glyphosate as they are “Round-Up Ready.”

If my experience has taught me anything, it has taught me to compost with frequency, a little goes a long way, and if you have a chance and the weather stays with you through October and November, then by all means, compost again! Mimic nature as best you can. Once the garden goes dormant or slows down to a crawl in the winter, all of the microbes that you fed in the fall, and all of the nutrients that they pooped out into the soil are going to be readily available for uptake by your very grateful plants once we’re into the New Year and spring starts to awaken us all. So, as you are putting compost down everywhere and asking yourself, “Why am I doing this?” Remember the microbes, and then you’ll remember why… we are supposed to compost in the fall.

© Randy Ritchie 2019

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