Make Health Food for Your Soil

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Compost pail

Fall is high season for making compost, the finest of all foods to feed your garden soil. Compost-worthy materials abound this time of year, so all you must do to make a batch is to pile up dead or dying plants, cool-season weeds, fruit and vegetable waste from your kitchen, and maybe some shredded leaves. Will such a simple project really make a difference in the performance of your veggies next year? You bet it will!

With no turning or other fussing, the heap I’m making now will be ready to use early next summer. Rotted but still chunky, the compost will be teeming with microorganisms that  suppress dozens of soil-borne diseases. From root rots to more serious bad news like fusarium yellows of tomatoes, compost stifles troublemakers and triggers plants to do a better job of defending themselves.

A layered compost heap
Building a layered compost heap from old plant debris is simple and will be a great source of food for your plants.

For a disease-suppressive soil to continue working well, it needs regular additions of compost, so you always need more. In a recent study involving snap beans and corn, soil amended with composted manure reduced bean root rot by 30%, and slashed corn root rot by 67%. But sadly, the disease-suppressive properties of compost didn’t last. After 12 months, the soil needed more bioactive compost.

Compost is also the best way to load up your soil with micronutrients – yet another reason to layer up bean skeletons with beleaguered basil.  In an 11-year study on the effect of compost on soil used to grow vegetable crops in Nova Scotia, the composted-amended plots did a far better job of providing essential micronutrients like calcium, magnesium and boron. In the garden, abundant micronutrients play out as far fewer tomatoes with blossom end rot, and broccoli without hollow stems.

Compost in a wheelbarrow

The compost you make from your own garden and yard waste is free of unwanted chemicals, too, and this has become a major issue in recent years (see Jeremy’s article on The Trouble with Manure). Sad stories of food gardens in the UK and USA that have been ruined by herbicide residues continue to mount. Until DowAgroscience’s pyralid herbicides (clopyralid and aminopyralid) are removed from the public compost stream, commercial sources of compost and mulch cannot be trusted. Don’t sit back and think the fight is over. This month the suspension of aminopyralid sales was lifted in the UK.  More than ever before, when it comes to compost, you need to make your own.

Barbara Pleasant and Deb Martin are authors of The Complete Compost Gardening Guide, which recently won a Silver Award of Achievement from the Garden Writers Association. Their website, dedicated to educational aspects of composting, is

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Show Comments


"I always have three compost piles going at the same time. One is in a large plastic upright compost bin,just outside the kitchen door. One is in a wire enclosure containing mostly leaves and other yard waste, as we have many trees on our property. The third compost area is a deep trench that runs along the perimeter of my vegetable garden itself. This system works very well for me and I have a continuous supply of compost conveniently at hand. I fill a wheelbarrow with material from each composting source, mix it all together and use it on veggies and flowers with great success. I can't imagine gardening without my own homemade compost: I never worry about chemicals or poisons in the soil as I know what has gone into the compost to begin with. "
Dee on Saturday 24 October 2009
"Despite my very best efforts, i.e. composting every bit of organic material we get from the garden and anything brought in, compostable stuff from work, our own chick manure (with straw) and some brought in cow muck, we still never seem to have enough compost to keep our large vegetable garden going. Over recent years I have noticed that our soils suffers more in winter (more or heavier rain fall and less frost) and I now do everything I can to keep the soil covered. However, more organic matter in the form of compost would definitely help. I just wish I could make more of the stuff! "
Peter on Sunday 25 October 2009
"Don't be discouraged -- composting is a reductive process, so you always get less than you put in. Growing small plots of cover crops (rye in winter, buckwheat in summer) helps bulk up our compost, because we pull up the plants and compost them instead of turning them under. I often do buy a little compost in spring, when the stuff from the previous season is not quite ready. There is no rule that says you have to make all of the compost you need."
Barbara Pleasant on Sunday 25 October 2009
"what is the best composter to buy, that is easy to use and makes enough compost for a 100 square foot garden. Something easy to handle, I am 62. "
Adonna on Friday 6 November 2009
"Adonna, you can get some rotary composters but I know some people who have used these and say they are hard to turn. However, this one looks good as it has a handle mechanism and you can get a wheelbarrow under it:,36-662,default,cp.html. Alternatively, you can get some wooden compost bins that allow you to add or remove slats at the side as required and these allow easy access to the compost."
Jeremy Dore on Saturday 7 November 2009
"I use yhe pile it on method . That is I grind all the leaves that can be found every falli call landscapers and have found two that are happy to deliver leaves and grass clippings rather than pay the tipping fee at the local transfer station "
Jerry Walker aka wellsworms on Thursday 12 November 2009
"Hi people out there,I have just got hold of about 5lb of coffee grouts from the works canteen I have been told it's good for the ground for growing but how much per sq yard.Before I lay my hands on a lot more how good is it."
TonyWoods on Thursday 16 February 2012
"Think of coffee grounds as beans that have been leached of their tannins and are ready to rot. With special handling, coffee grounds can even be used as a substrate for growing mushrooms. But in the garden or compost heap, the phrase "all things in moderation" comes to mind. Coffee grounds can be used as mulch to 5 cm deep, or tossed into an active compost bin without a thought. Do make sure that the coffee ground are a part of a larger plan to compost your own kitchen scraps and yard waste. "
Barbara Pleasant on Friday 17 February 2012
"The bears are always at my compost... Any recommendations?"
Helen on Tuesday 10 October 2017
"This seems to be a new problem as bears have figured out what compost is. You can do some worm composting in an indoor bin to deal with some of your kitchen waste, or try going to a pit type compost with a heavy lid. Some people simply bury their kitchen waste at least 6 inches deep. Garden waste without food bits in it is of little interest to bears."
Barbara Pleasant on Wednesday 11 October 2017

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