Fall prep is important for the spring gardening season

Fall is here….time to start prepping for next spring!

As temperatures drop and leaves change color, it is time to start thinking about prepping your lawn and gardens for the winter and next spring. What are you to do with the fallen leaves?  Is it too late to start a compost pile? Does compost “work” over the winter?  When should you apply natural fertilizers such as compost or manure?  These are a few of the many things to think about as summer comes to a close.

Leaves can be used in many different ways.   They can be collected and saved for future composting. They can cover up a current compost pile for the winter.   Leaves should not be placed directly on a garden, however. Because leaves are a carbon source and require nitrogen input as they decompose, they will take nitrogen from the garden soil. Essentially the leaves rob the garden soil of its nitrogen when they are removed in the spring.  An acceptable alternative is to roto-til the leaves into the soil immediately so come spring all the nutrients from leaf matter decomposition remain in the garden.

Untended leaves contribute to green algae blooms when they get into the storm drains as part of street and lawn runoff (www.renewourwaters.org). Mulching the leaves into the grass is a popular and effective habit to maximize replenishment of soil nutrients while reducing harmful runoff.   Mulching is as simple as making several passes over the lawn with your lawn mower will chop up the leaves and integrate the particles into the grass.  After a winter of decomposition the leaf pieces help your spring grass grow green and strong. Don’t forget to remove leaves from gutters and storm sewer outlets, too. These can be added to your compost pile or mowed into the lawn.

Fall is the perfect time to collect “browns” for composting.  The most abundant “brown” during the autumn is leaf material. Other compostable “brown” materials are wood chips, paper and cardboard.  “Browns” such as leaves are easy to store and help control odor in a compost pile. Leaves can be stored in garbage cans or bags or simply piled beside your compost heap for easy access.  Remember to keep a ratio of 2-3 parts “browns” to 1 part “greens” in the compost pile.  “Greens” include grass clippings and food scraps such as egg shells, banana peels, coffee grounds and vegetable scraps.   “Browns” break down slowly counteracting the rapid break down of “greens.”  Bulkier, drier “browns” also help to keep air in the pile keeping the process of digestion aerobic. Anaerobic digestion, on the other hand, creates odor problems.

As environmental temperatures drop, the composting process will slow down. Piles smaller than 3ft x 3ft x 3ft (a cubic yard) are most affected by cooler weather.  But never fear! Compost material can still be added to piles even if they are frozen. Once spring returns, the pile will heat up again and material added during the winter will begin composting.

Fall is the perfect time to apply nutrient-rich natural fertilizers to yards and gardens.  While manure-free compost is safe to apply any time of the year, manure should only be spread in the drier fall season because it contains potentially harmful bacteria that may contaminate garden produce if used during the growing season (http://hort.uwex.edu/articles/safely-using-manure-garden).   Applying natural fertilizers such as manure or compost before the snow falls allows nutrients to work into the ground. Once the frost clears in the spring, the added nutrients are readily available for growing plants to use.

Sarah Everson is the business manager for Compost Joe’s Premium Soils and Organics, a private composting facility located between Fond du Lac and Oshkosh. Sarah also offers seminars and private classes on composting.

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