Since harvesting vegetables over the past month, I’ve had lots of questions about what to do with the old soil. The biggest question being, can it be reused?
The quick answer is YES, so long as the plant that was using it didn’t have any type of bug infestation or disease. The long answer is, you will need to revitalize used soil by adding nutrients to it, and the best way to do this is to put it and the old plant pieces in a compost pile.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that 28% of waste coming from each household could be composted to reduce greenhouse gasses and offer something in return… organically fortified black dirt for future garden use.
The EPA helps make composting sound easy by offering a list of 3 ingredients:
1. BROWNS: Dead leaves, branches, pine needles and twigs. Also include cardboard, paper, shredded newsprint, sawdust, woodchips and fireplace ashes.
2. GREENS: grass, garden and yard trimmings not treated with pesticides, houseplants, hay & straw, household waste such as fruit and vegetable peels & scraps, eggshells, coffee grounds with filters, teabags, nutshells. Also include hair and fur, dryer and vacuum cleaner lint, and cotton or wool rags.
3. WATER: moisten all dry matter as it’s added, making sure to keep compost covered or inside a container to retain its moisture.
Additionally, the EPA recommends, “Your compost pile should have an equal amount of browns to greens. You should also alternate layers of organic materials of different-sized particles. The brown materials provide carbon for your compost, the green materials provide nitrogen, and the water provides moisture to help break down the organic matter.”
How to Make An Outdoor Compost Pile
1. Start with a 2-inch layer of twigs and straw in a shady spot of bare earth measuring approximately 4 feet in diameter, preferably near a water source.
2. Add layers of moist and dry materials.
3. Add green manure (nitrogen materials) to activate the compost pile.
4. Keep moist (not soaked) by watering occasionally.
5. Cover the pile with wood, plastic, or carpet scraps to keep moisture and heat in.
6. Turn every few weeks with a pitchfork or shovel to aerate the compost and promote faster decomposition.
Check out Eartheasy’s detailed material guide for a list of materials to use, and why.
If your compost pile seems a bit on the stinky side, just add a little more carbon. That’s the brown stuff that keeps your compost smelling fresh and earthy. By repurposing your old potting soil and garden bits, you will not only help keep the stink out of your compost, but contribute to your very own stockpile of black gold!
Black Gold may be collected in as little as 2 months, or up to 2 years depending on the amount and size of materials added.
The Do NOT Add List
1. Do not compost meat, dairy products, or fats & lard, as these particular ingredients will make stinky compost that will attract pests such as rodents and flies. Instead, use a product made specifically to eliminate 1.5 to 2 pounds of daily food waste from going into landfills and creating methane gas like the Green Cone Solar Waste Digester.
2. Do not compost weeds or diseased plant matter, or you will black gold may become sick, weedy, and buggy.
3. Do not compost your pet’s feces if you intend to use the dirt to grow food. Pet waste may contain germs, viruses, parasites or other bacteria and pathogens that could be harmful to humans.
4. Avoid adding anything sprayed with pesticides. This includes fruit peels such as banana and citrus. Pesticides will kill beneficial composting organisms. (See composting notes below.)
5. Do not add black walnut leaves or twigs as they may release a substance that is harmful to plants.
6. Avoid adding any materials that may be contaminated with oils from cutting equipment, such as sawdust and wood chips, as they contain substances harmful to plants and humans.
7. Do not compost charcoal or coal ash as they may contain carcinogens harmful to plants and humans.
1. Green compost items should be buried under at least 10 inches of Brown.
2. Making sure all Brown material is shredded or mulched so it breaks down faster will offer faster returns on Black Gold.
3. In regards to chemically treated lawn clippings, MU Extension states, "In general, plant material in contact with insecticides registered for home use is safe to use in a compost pile. Insecticides sprayed on plant material break down rapidly in light, and the plant material usually can be used in the compost pile within one week of application. Fungicide-treated material should also be kept out of the compost pile for at least one week."
Making the Fastest Black Gold
The trick in making the fastest Black Gold is aeration and the perfect mix of carbon and nitrogen materials. This means adding layers, keeping them moist (not drenched), and turning them every 2-3 weeks to help the good bacteria thoroughly mixed into the material you are decomposing.
Even though I'm a little late in the game, I am going to start composting this fall and hope for my own supply of Black Gold by spring.
I know it seems crazy that I plan to start composting during the worst time of year in Michigan, but from what I’ve learned, it is possible even though it may be a little more work during blizzard season. It should be worth the effort come spring.
How to Compost Through a Michigan Winter
1. Using a Ground Pile:
a. Insulate your ground composting area with bales of hay or cement blocks and cover with a piece of plywood (or something similar) to keep excess moisture out.
b. Add layers of greens and browns as needed to maintain the proper mix of materials.
c. Keep 1 or 2 plastic bags of mulched leaves and twigs for use in your compost through the winter.
d. Maintain an area to access dirt, or repurpose clean potting soil to use when produce scraps look too 'wet' or get stinky.
e. Stir every 2-3 weeks
f. Secure lid to keep the critters out.
2. Using a Covered Bin (like a trashcan):
a. Locate your bin in a sunny spot for winter making sure to keep it out of windy areas.
b. If using a bin to compost in, put a thin layer of cardboard in the bottom, then add a couple feet of mulched leaves and twigs in the base for easy dumping in the spring.
c. Add a paper bag in the center to hold your produce scraps.
d. Keep 1 or 2 plastic bags of mulched leaves and twigs handy for use in your compost through the winter.
e. Maintain an area to access dirt, or repurpose clean potting soil when food scraps look too 'wet' or get stinky.
f. Add additional bags for food scraps as compost grows.
g. Stir every 2-3 weeks.
h. Secure the lid of your compost with a bungee chord to keep varmints out.
i. Dump into your ground composting area in the spring to retrieve your Black Gold.
If you are planning to use a composting bin this winter, note that stirring it could prove difficult. For this reason, I think a composting tumbler maybe the way to go this winter. There are many models available, but a dual compartment version allows time for aging in one compartment as you work on the other. Hopefully the tumbler action won't freeze up!
Using an in-house composter is also a possibility.
Look for more on how you can compost indoors through the winter next time!
In the meantime, I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I will have plenty of Black Gold ready for spring planting season.
If you have any tips to share, please post them in the comments below.
Thanks so much for reading!
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Eartheasy, 2020, Composting Benefits, https://learn.eartheasy.com/guides/composting/
EPA, July 15, 2020, Composting at Home, https://www.epa.gov/recycle/composting-home
City of Ann Arbor Michigan, December 7, 2018, Winter Composting, https://www.a2gov.org/departments/trash-recycling/Pages/Winter-Composting.aspx
Seaman, Greg, November 8, 2019, Tips for Winter Composting, https://learn.eartheasy.com/articles/tips-for-winter-composting/
Starbuck, Chris, 2020, Grass Clippings, Compost and Mulch, Questions and Answers, https://extension.missouri.edu/publications/g6958