Garden: A Rake’s Progress
The following is a regular column that addresses basic issues facing the ever-inquisitive back- and front-yard toiler, proffered by someone who knows best; one of the fertile master gardeners from the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge. This week, Brian Cruey offers sympathy for those who have to engage in the seemingly endless task of gathering fallen leaves and offers tips on how to make all the work more worthwhile in the long run.
The fall foliage has stopped being beautiful and has started being a real pain in the ass. Long woodland walks have quickly turned into endless afternoons raking leaves. It’s like this cruel Zen game where as soon as I finish, I turn around and—more leaves! Are you kidding! There aren’t even trees over there! Time to start all over again. After failing to convince myself that this is a “fun” chore, I usually just go get the lawn mower and start mowing over them—a great technique to use if you have a mulching mower and you mow frequently enough.
I always try to keep in mind that I am raking up a mini goldmine. Leaves are great for your compost pile—and more importantly, great for your WINTER compost pile. A lot of people don’t think about it, but your compost pile doesn’t stop working once the temperature drops.
It’s true that, like Amtrak, tourism, and my metabolism, the microbes that break down the organic material in your compost are sluggish during the winter months. However, there are steps that you can take to optimize the production and health of your compost. For starters, make sure that your compost is covered. This not only provides insulation, but it also helps to regulate moisture. It’s true that you want to keep your compost pile moist, but too much moisture can cause your compost to slow down and heavy snows can have a negative effect. Covering your compost also keeps the snow off, so that when you want to add new material, you can get easier access. Be sure to weigh down the edges with stones or bricks so the wind doesn’t blow it away. The real goal here is to contain the heat, which helps to facilitate decomposition. In addition to covering the pile, create a windbreak around your compost by using hay bales, logs, cinder blocks or bags of raked leaves—anything that’s going to help contain the heat in your pile.
Next, you will want to chop up your kitchen scraps and green materials to a smaller than usual size. The smaller the better, but try to get things down to under 2 inches. Even in the summer months, this is a good way to speed up compost production, but it’s critical during the winter. Because my compost pile is kind of far from my house, I have a pail that sits outside the back door in which to collect scraps. It’ll be cold, so you won’t have to worry about the waste getting too stinky and you can cut down the number of trips to the compost pile. When you do make the trek to add new green material to the compost, cover newly added waste with a nice layer of all those dead leaves you raked in the fall. Again, this helps create a layer of insulation and, once the spring rolls around, that material should break down pretty quickly.
Even though the snows are deep and the temperatures are cold, your compost pile is still hard at work—there’s no need to lapse in your efforts during the winter freeze. Your garden will thank you come spring!