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What to do with your compost this winter

November 15, 2017

Q: I am new to gardening and have read some conflicting information about composting materials. I have some raised beds for vegetables and some regular flower beds, too. What can I put in them to cover and feed the soil? My composter is a barrel that turns with a crank, and I know I can use this, too, but so far, it hasn’t made any compost. The kitchen waste I put in it is smelly, but it’s not breaking down much. What can I do in the winter, with my kitchen waste?

A: The first thing I would do is layer chopped autumn leaves over the garden beds, both raised and flower beds. You then can scatter bagged compost over them to hold them in place and begin the process of them breaking down. Just plant through them in the spring.

Now, about your composter. In order for compost materials to “cook” and break down, you need three things. You need green stuff, such as your kitchen waste, grass clippings or other green plant material, and you need brown stuff, such as straw, paper, brown leaves, brown pine needles, or dried up brown plants. This makes a good combination of nitrogen and carbon. But you also need oxygen, and that’s where the turning comes in.

Throw a shovelful of garden soil into your composter and add a bunch of dry autumn leaves and some shredded paper. That should get it cooking. Turn it often, like every day you can get out there. You can keep composting well onto winter if the barrel is in the sun.

We have a hole in the back of our garden, left from pulling out a tree that was growing in a tub. We collect our kitchen compostables in a pail on the back porch and empty it into the hole when it is full. In the winter we cover the hole with a big bag of garden soil and empty the soil into the hole in the spring. This is a form of passive composting that leaches nutrients into the soil around the hole.

Q: I’ve heard it’s not OK to let the leaves from the trees that fall on the garden and lawn stay there and rot all winter. Any opinion?

A: The concern over leaving them is two-fold. A thick mat of leaves can kill the grass, smothering it. But more importantly, the fungal spores from tree diseases overwinter on leaf litter. Some of these are more benign than others. If you are battling severe disease infections, you might want to remove the leaves. But if your leaf drop is relatively clean, they shouldn’t be a problem. It is strongly advisable to chop the leaves with the mower if you are leaving them. When chopped, they won’t mat and will break down into food for the lawn more easily.

We pick ours up with the mower and layer the chopped leaves on garden beds, both food garden and ornamental. We also take leaves from neighbors who have clean leaves, empty the bags into rows and chop them up to use. You can’t buy mulch like that. Nature doesn’t pick up the leaves; they remain on the soil to break down and become humus. But nature also doesn’t cultivate a lawn, so do chop them if leaving some on the lawn.

Q: I bought a pretty rosemary Christmas tree last year, and it turned completely black within a few days of bringing it home. I really like having one in my kitchen during the holidays, but now I am hesitant. What do you think happened?

A: Rosemary usually only turns black when it is exposed to extreme cold. It might have been exposed to cold air during transit. I would try to buy the rosemary earlier in the season, and protect it from exposure.

Rosemary likes conditions on the dry side, so dry air in the home should not be too big an issue, but over watering can be. Make sure the drainage holes are open and draining freely, sitting the pot on shims to make sure the holes are not sealed.