A critical part of creating a lush, vibrant lawn and garden is fertilizing. If you favor organic fertilizers, and many people do, there are a number of commercially available products. Or, you could make your own. For free!
The use of compost has long been recognized as an environmentally-friendly and effective way to greatly increase microbial activity in the soil, enriching lawns and gardens. And the ingredients you need are in your kitchen and yard.
Not only does compost make an exceptionally good fertilizer for plants and lawns, it also improves the soil’s water retention so you won’t have to water as often. Additionally, according to Professor Joseph Masabni of the Texas A&M University System, if we were to compost kitchen scraps, leaves, grass clippings and other landscape debris, we would divert 20 to 30 percent of the waste going to landfill. Win-win!
Compost is made using nitrogen-rich materials (called “greens”) and carbon-rich materials (called “browns”). The greens will help heat up a compost pile because they enable the resident microorganisms to grow and multiply quickly. The browns provide food sources for the organisms that work with the microbes in breaking down the contents of the compost pile. The ratio of greens to browns can get quite complicated with tables of calculations of the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio of specific materials, but generally, if you go with 1 part green to 2 or 3 parts brown you won’t go far wrong.
Reducing your greens and browns to small pieces by crushing, shredding, or chopping will help to speed up the process of decomposition. Keep the pile moist (but not sopping wet), add in some air for the microorganisms by turning the pile regularly and you’re good to go. And remember that the only thing you can’t add too much of is air!
Many of our food scraps are excellent compost fodder. Save up your coffee grounds, tea leaves, fruit and vegetable trimmings – everything, in fact, except for bones, oils, meat, and dairy products, as these break down very slowly and will attract unwanted critters.
Grass clippings are nitrogren-rich and can be added but are probably best left on the lawn. The Department of Horticulture at the University of Missouri notes that grass clippings left on the lawn provide up to 25 percent of the lawn’s fertilizer needs. Garden waste from spent undiseased plants is an excellent source of nitrogren. You can also toss in the pesky weeds that you’ve just dug up as long as they haven’t gone to seed. Manure is a very rich “green” as it contains large amounts of nitrogren and beneficial microbes, but restrict it to manure from herbivores (vegetarian animals) such as rabbits, hamsters, horses, sheep, ducks and cows. Manure from meat-eaters such as cats and dogs should not be composted as it could contain dangerous pathogens. And you can even compost cat and dog hair (good news for those of us wondering if there is a use for the mountains of pet hair that materialize every spring).
Most dead leaves (abundant in many areas in the autumn) and spoiled hay of all types are carbon-rich additions to a compost pile. As a caution, it’s best not to use walnut leaves as they contain concentrations of juglone, which can inhibit the growth of some vegetable plants like tomato, potato, eggplant, and pepper, and also some ornamentals such as lilac, peony, rhododendron, and azalea. This is especially true of black walnut leaves. Oak leaves should be composted separately for use with acid-loving plants. Sawdust (but from non-treated lumber only) is a welcome addition to a compost pile when thoroughly mixed with the greens. You can use wood chips, but they take a long time to decompose and might be better used for mulch. Non-glossy shredded paper and cardboard, corn stalks, old potting soil, pine needles, stale flour, cereals, spices, and eggshells are all grist to your compost mill.
Composting conserves water, can save you the expense of garbage removal, eases the burden on our landfill sites, and builds the soil for healthy lawns and gardens. In short, it turns garbage into gold!
Another way to put your finished compost (dark brown, crumbly, and smells like earth) to good use, and to give your plants an instant boost of nutrients, is to use some of it to make a “tea”. It’s important to make compost tea using some kind of aeration equipment, otherwise the oxygen will get depleted and the tea will start to smell bad.
To brew compost tea, you’ll need a 5-gallon bucket, an aquarium pump or aerator from a pond, several feet of tubing, something to stir the mixture with, and something to strain the tea with (e.g. burlap sack, cheesecloth).
Start with filling a bucket with 3 gallons of water. Let the water sit out in the air and sun for several hours to dechlorinate it. Place a pump aerator in the bottom of the 5-gallon bucket and attach the aerator to the pump with flexible tubing. Then fill the bucket halfway with a good quality finished compost (containing no manure) that smells sweet and earthy. Add the dechlorinated water to the compost, leaving 3 inches at the top of the bucket.
Next, turn on the pump. Adjust it until the mixture looks like it’s boiling. Then add 1 ounce of unsulfured molasses, and stir the tea fully to mix the ingredients together. Steep the tea for 2 to 3 days, stirring it vigorously several times a day. Don’t leave it for more than 3 days. If the brew loses its earthy smell and starts to smell bad, throw it out and start a new batch.
When the tea is finished brewing, turn off the pump and remove the equipment. Strain the tea by lining another bucket with a burlap sack or large piece of cheesecloth and pouring the tea into it. Wrap the bag or cheesecloth around the compost and pull it out of the water. Squeeze the bag gently to remove excess tea. Return the compost to the pile or work it into your garden beds.
Use the tea immediately after straining, because the beneficial microbes in the strained liquid begin to die when the compost source is removed. The tea fertilizer will first need to be diluted, about one part tea to 10 parts dechlorinated water. You can now apply it directly to the soil using a watering can, or you can use a spray bottle for plant leaves. To fertilize lawns, use a hose-end sprayer and garden hose.
South Austin Irrigation is here to help you keep your lawn and garden looking good no matter the season. If you’re looking to upgrade/repair your irrigation system, contact us today!