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Sonoma County Gazette

Using Compost vs. Mulch in Your Garden

Nov 24, 2017
by Vesta Copestakes


COMPOST: Technically speaking, compost is organic matter that has decomposed. The easiest way to make compost is to pile up garden refuse (plus kitchen vegetable and fruit scraps if you’re inclined) then wait a year. You want this pile away from your house and you literally just throw things on the pile throughout the year. This works well in the country, but is a challenge in urban areas.

When you are ready to use this kind of compost, pull the top layer off and put it in a new spot. It has the biological organisms that will get your next pile started. Toss the soft, fully decomposed material until it is mixed well and all large pieces our sifted out and added to the new pile. This is rich stuff!

We can speed up the process by paying attention to the “formula” of 2 parts ‘brown/dry’ to 1 part ‘green/juicy’, turning and watering as needed, and using bins or containers that can be rotated or aerated. Compost that has fully decomposed is sometimes referred to as humus. Humus is usually dark brown in color and has a mild, pleasant smell. If your compost smells bad, it hasn’t finished breaking down.

Compost is full of nutrients that can be added to, or dug into, garden beds while the soil is being turned for spring planting. When planting new plants, you can add compost to the hole, but make sure you dig it in rather than just filling the hole. You want a good mix of compost and native soil so plants send their roots out into the regular soil.

Compost can be used to “side-dress” plants already in the ground by spreading the compost next to the plant and working it into the soil with a small garden fork. You can even lay it on top of the soil around existing plants when digging in new plants. Worms will love you for it and do their own brand of digging it into your garden soil. Just keep it a few inches away from the plant base so it doesn’t smother it. Plants like their bases to breathe.

 MULCH: is the layer of material placed on the TOP of the soil as a protective cover. It helps suppress weed germination, retain moisture, insulate the soil, and reduce erosion. Mulch also contributes nutrients to the soil by gradually breaking down over time. During the gardening season, we heavily mulch our gardens, especially as days get longer and hotter.

If you want mulch to break down, the more it is already in the process of decomposing the better. Firefighters in our recent blazes noted that landscape bark caught fire and flew into the air. Those embers traveled to other yards and started more fires, so think about those chunks as potential embers rather than pretty covering when you look to mulch your gardens. Go for the fine stuff that hlds less air and will smolder rther then burst into flames.

Using both compost and mulch in the garden to use with huge impacts on growing plants, cutting down on weeds, and improving soil. Use BOTH and your gardens will thrive! Winter is an excellent time to add compost as mulch. Just a little bit at a time, spread in thin layers, creates “compost tea” as rains so leaches nutrients into the soil. By spring they have melded into garden happiness!


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