Using Compost to Solve disease problems
Compost has properties that make it effect in the control of certain plant diseases, especially fungal ones. Research in this area indicates that compost produced at high temperatures, has less disease-suppressive ability than compost produced at low-temperatures. Apparently, more of the beneficial microorganisms are killed by the high heat. However, "seeding" high-temperature compost with small amounts of mature compost made at moderate temperatures--about 80øF- restores the fast compost's ability to fight disease-causing organisms. Therefore, if you make compost by the more managed high-temperature method, but disease controlling benefits are important to you, also make some slower low-temperature compost at the same time and mix a little in with the high-temperature material.
Wherever compost is spread in the landscape it helps reduce fungal problems by virtue of its presence on or in the soil. At the same time, there are some specific tricks for using compost as a disease fighter.
[Photo - Showing compost spread in patches on a lawn]
Fungal Problems On Lawns -- Some of the fungal diseases that are common on lawns such as dollar spot, brown patch, or fusarium patch can sometimes be handled by compost if they are caught early. As soon as symptoms are apparent in patches or sections of the lawn, spread about 1/2 inch of finished compost over the infected area. Do not water the area for a few days. Then if no rain has occurred for several days, lightly water the affected area in the morning sometime before noon. This gives the treated patch a chance to dry off before nightfall. Many fungal diseases like dark damp conditions like those found at night after the lawn is watered in the evening and is not able to dry off before dark. If the fungal disease persists for more than two weeks, it may be necessary to use a safe fungicide to deal with the problem.
Starting Seedlings Indoors -- A fungal disease called "damping off" is a common problem of seedlings that are started indoors. Two measures will reduce problems with this fungus. First, use compost made at low temperatures (the slow method) in the potting soil that the seeds are planted in. A good mix is about 1/3 compost, 1/3 vermiculite, 1/3 perlite or coarse sand. Compost made the slow way suppresses damping off spores. Second, when the seedlings appear, always be sure they have good air circulation. The best way to do this is to set up a fan to blow a very light breeze over the flats or pots of newly sprouted seeds. Damping off will seldom attack a seedling that is well ventilated.
[Photo - Showing seedlings with fan in the background]
Compost As Poultice For Tree Injuries -- For centuries, farmers with a special feel for the land, would treat a wound on a tree with a handful of soil, held against the wound with a rag or tape of some kind. Researchers in the past 20 years have confirmed that the microbial content of the soil has disease fighting and disease preventing capabilities. Actually most of the research has been done to confirm that compost is even better than plain soil. It is alive with beneficial microbes that will take over the area of a wound and prevent harmful pathogens from getting a foothold. Studies have concluded that tree paint, for years used to cover saw cuts and wounds on trees, has no beneficial value.
[Photo - Showing wound wrapped with tree wrap]
Compost, on the other hand, has remedial value in a case where a tree or large shrub has been damaged and the bark is broken making the tree vulnerable to disease pathogens. If a tree has been wounded by a lawn mower or a weed trimmer, or has suffered damage from wind or storms, a poultice of compost is as good a treatment as you can find to prevent disease in a wound. Dampen the compost slightly and lay it on the wound, taking care to cover the entire injured surface with compost. Then wrap the area with Tree Skin(TM) or some other biodegradable material such as cotton cloth. After a few months, when the tree has calloused over the wound, remove the tape or wrapping if it has not already rotted away.
Seasonal Compost Schedule
People make compost when they accumulate some organic materials that are appropriate for a compost pile, no matter what time of year it is. Nevertheless, most homeowners find that there is pattern to the availability of certain ingredients for a pile and they begin to take advantage of the annual cycle in the yard as these materials are generated over the seasons. Leaves provide carbon for the compost pile. They also make a wonderful organic mulch. However, they all fall in the autumn when nitrogen sources are scarce for making compost. Grass and weeds which provide nitrogen for a compost pile aren't available until spring, but the leaves are not available then. A good storage system is the key to successfully exploiting the bounties of each season. A simple annual cycle of activities that utilize this system makes it possible to use all the leaves, grass and other organic materials that are available any time of year.
In Fall and Winter
In the fall, when deciduous trees (drop)their leaves, try to shred or chop them as you collect them from around the yard. The primary use for them at this point is as an organic mulch for all trees, shrubs, and gardens for winter protection. Spread a 4 to 6 inch layer around all those areas to utilize a large portion of the leaf supply (the 6 inch layer will settle to 3 to 4 inches in a month). In the spring either collect this mulch and use it for making compost, or just leave it on the ground to decompose slowly all by itself as a form of sheet composting.
[Photo - Showing leaves falling in large quantities in the fall]
Store the chopped leaves that remain after everything is mulched right in a compost bin or in a compost enclosure for the winter. A bin that is 4x4x4 will store over 100 bags of whole leaves after they have been chopped. It may be necessary to let the pile settle for a month in order to have room for all the leaves, but by spring all 100 bags worth will be in that one bin. Some decomposition of those leaves will take place over the winter, but not a significant amount. Spring is the time to start making compost in earnest, since that is when the green nitrogen-rich material starts to become available.
Come spring, the chopped leaves from the fall play two roles. Those that served as the winter mulch on the beds and around the trees and shrubs, become the primary mulching material for the summer season. You may want to pull them off of flower and vegetable beds temporarily in the early spring to make way for the sun to warm up the soil. For this, remove the chopped leaves about 3 weeks before expected last frost. Then when summer heat sets in, replace them on the soil around established plants to cool their soil during the heat of summer. In areas where the winter chopped leaf mulch is not disturbed in the spring, it may be necessary to add another 2 inches of chopped leaves for the pile stored in the compost bin to compensate for the decomposition that has taken place in the mulch over the winter. On some properties using chopped leaves in this fashion uses up almost all that are available. Those leaves still stored from the fall become the basis for a compost pile. Springtime is compost pile building time.
[Photo - Showing tilling compost in to garden bed]
Late spring is a good time to use up any compost left over from last fall's applications. Use it routinely when planting new plants and apply it as a side dressing around seedlings and young plants. Enrich the soil in areas where seeds are sown directly into the garden bed with compost prior to seeding.
By late spring and into early summer some weeds, maybe a load of grass clippings or two, and perhaps some kitchen garbage are available for the compost pile. Add these nitrogen rich materials to the chopped leaves in the bin for a good compost combination. The simplest way is to mix them in as you turn the pile. Do not just throw them on top of a simple pile without covering them with some carbon material. If you are turning your pile from time to time, then add the collected green stuff to the compost pile when you turn it.
Again, if you are fortunate enough to still have some finished compost left, use it as a side dressing around some favorite plants over the summer. It will bolster their ability to withstand the heat of the summer. They will need less water, and enjoy cooler temperatures around their roots.
[Photo - Showing side dressing a blossoming flower]
Summer is the time when the compost pile is working at its peak rate of decomposition, especially if it has been turned once or twice. If it is ready before fall, then either begin to use it right away or store it under cover until fall. If there are more materials available, move the finished compost to another location so a new pile can be started in the empty bin. It is possible to produce several batches of highly managed compost over the summer if there are enough organic materials at hand.
In The Fall
Fall is the best time to use compost in large amounts. It is an ideal time to topdress an existing lawn or to renovate the soil for a new lawn. It is also a good time to mulch and fertilize trees and shrubs. Spread the compost, however much you have, in the late fall a few weeks after first frost. Just as you empty out your bin, the leaves are beginning to fall and the annual cycle starts all over again.
Compost Supplements -
There are so many uses for compost outlined in this chapter that it is tempting to try all of them. If you choose not to make compost, or you are able to produce only a limited supply in your backyard, there will not be enough to go around. Fortunately, there are several excellent compost alternatives that will contribute the requisite 1/2 inch of humus to your landscape each year or two.
Municipal Compost -- Because so many states have passed legislation prohibiting yard waste from landfills, many communities across America are setting up municipal based or county based leaf composting operations (over 1400 in 1990). Leaves are still collected by the community trash pickup system as before, but instead of taking the leaves to the landfill, those leaves go to a community composting site. In most cases, they are laid out in huge windrows hundreds of yards long. Large machines, designed to turn compost, move down the windrows every few days turning the pile to get more oxygen into the decomposition process. Usually by June or July, the leaf compost is finished and ready to distribute.
[Photo - Municipal composting site]
Much of this valuable compost is used on public areas including parks, athletic fields, and landscaped areas around public buildings. The professional nursery industry also takes a lot of this compost, since the cost is usually reasonable. In most cases, there is still compost left over for use by residents in the community. Many community composting systems offer compost to residents free for pickup in plastic bags, pails and trucks.
Community leaf compost is excellent compost and if it is available to you, include it in your landscape maintenance plans. Your own compost bin will conveniently handle your own leaves and any yard waste that is not accepted at the community composting site, but this virtually unlimited municipal supply provides all the extra you might need.
Municipal Composted Sludge -- Another very serious waste disposal problem in North America is sewage, the liquid effluent from industry and the toilets of private residences. Again, composting has come to the rescue and promises to solve the sewage disposal problems of many cities across the continent. By early 1991, 133 cities in the United States and Canada had undertaken a program to compost sludge, the solid residue from liquid waste into a dark, rich, humus that is ideal for use in residential landscapes. In the coming years many more cities will be instituting similar programs.
[Photo - Municipal composted sludge site (Philadelphia is good)]
When the liquefied waste arrives at the sewage treatment facility, the water is removed leaving a rather odiforous damp material called "sludge cake". This sludge cake is then mixed with wood chips and composted for about 30 days. Then the larger wood chips are screened out and the remaining material is composted further for another 30 days. ®MDBO¯Jeff check these figures with Bill®MDNM¯ The final composted sludge is sifted once more and is then ready to use. By this time it has only a mild odor which disappears within two days of application on the soil. This procedure varies somewhat from city to city, but the basic approach is pretty uniform across the country.
For many years, this composted sludge was not considered safe for use in home applications because of the concern about the occasional high concentration of heavy metals that might prove toxic if used in home settings. In most cases, that problem has been solved and the heavy metal content of most composted sludges is quite safe for all home uses. People may wish to avoid using it on vegetable gardens just to be absolutely sure, but in most cities the heavy metal content of their composted sludge is well below safe tolerances for all home applications.
Municipal composted sludge is sometimes sold through retail outlets such as garden centers and nurseries. Most of the communities that produce it allow residents to have as much composted sludge as they can haul away for no fee at all. This is a marvelous opportunity for getting a very high quality soil amendment costing only the time it takes you to pick it up and take it home. You should check to see if a city near you has such a program.
[Photo - Spreading sludge with a top dresser]
Composted sludge tends to have a higher organic content than compost made in the home compost bin. Consequently, its value lasts several years longer than normal homemade compost. If you spread municipal composted sludge about 1/2 inch thick over your lawn, you will get benefits of that application for 2 to 3 years. If you have a new home sitting on subsoil because the contractor took away the layer of topsoil, municipal composted sludge is the perfect antidote to the problem. A few truckfuls of sludge will turn subsoil into topsoil and will support all kinds of plants extremely well.
Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss -- A good amendment to stretch out a limited supply of home made compost is Canadian spaghnum peat moss. A rich brown in color, it has a light, soft, fibrous, spongy texture. It is a clean, natural, and organic substance that is free of harmful salts, chemicals, or weed seeds. A plant product, it is biodegradable.
Decomposing sphagnum peat moss plants are found mostly in extensive bogs in the very cold, wet regions of Canada. Dating back to the Ice Age, sphagnum moss was one of the first plants to grow on land as the glaciers receded. Over the centuries layers of very gradually decomposing moss have accumulated at these sites. Today this wonderful material is harvested and made available for a wide variety of uses in residential yards and gardens.
[Photo - A couple of bales of peat moss, maybe one opened]
Sphagnum peat moss is so versatile because of its basic structure. Like compost, it is highly water retentive, absorbing from 12 to 20 times its weight in liquid. At the same time it is very porous. Even when thoroughly wet it still has 15% air space. This permits excellent exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which benefits plants of all kinds. Added to lawn and garden soil, peat moss helps it to achieve the deal mentioned earlier in this chapter--simultaneously well draining and moisture holding. Because it is slow to fully decompose in the soil, about a year in the South and two years in the North, its benefits are long-lasting. However, like other organic soil enhancers, peat moss decomposes faster in sandy soils than in clay soils. It is quite acidic, its pH typically ranging from 3.4 to 4.8. A soil conditioner only, peat moss adds little nutritive value to soil. Fertilize soil enhanced with sphagnum peat moss according to normal practice.
Since peat moss is more acidic than home made compost, it needs to have some lime added if it is being used as a general soil amendment. Use about 5-10 pounds of powdered or granulated lime®MDNM¯ per bale of peat moss. That amounts to roughly a couple of coffee cans full of line to about 8 cubic feet of peat moss.
To formulate a product that serves as an excellent compost substitute, mix Canadian spaghnum peat moss and processed dried cow manure, which can be purchased at most garden centers. A four cubic foot bale of peat moss mixed with one or two 50-pound bags of processed cow manure yields a material that offer most of the benefits of homemade compost. Peat moss also makes an excellent compost extender when mixed with municipal composted sludge. Mix peat moss with composted municipal sludge about 3 to 1 for a superior organic soil amending material.
[Photo - Showing hose going into a bale of peat moss]
Moistening Peat Moss--Peat moss is best spread on the lawn as it comes out of the package, dry and fluffy. However, for use as mulch or for planting, it is preferable to moisten the peat first. Wetting peat moss can be difficult. For quick results, punch a hole in the plastic wrapper on the bale and push a stick down half way into its center. Pour a bucket of hot water into the hole to promote absorption by the peat moss. After about 20 minutes, stick a hose into the hole turned on to a slow trickle. Within an hour most of the contents of the bale will be moistened. An alternative for people who are really organized is to break open a bale a few days before it is to be used and set it out in the rain.
Storing Leftovers--Store the unused portion of a bale of peat moss in a large plastic trash can with a tight lid. If the peat moss is moist, it will stay moist. If it is dry, it will stay dry.
Mushroom Soil -- Some folks in certain areas of North America have access to another excellent source of humus and that is composted mushroom soil. Mushrooms are grown in composting straw and manure. After the composting process is over, the material is no longer any good for growing mushrooms. This ``spent'' mushroom soil is an excellent soil conditioner and is usually sold by mushroom farmers at a very reasonable price. Let the mushroom soil age for at least six weeks before using it in your garden, because the manure may not be sufficiently aged to be safe for the food crops. If mushroom soil is put through a shredder with homemade compost or with peat moss, it makes a wonderful, soft, uniform material that can be used anywhere on the landscape.
There is no doubt that compost offers a multitude of benefits to residential yards and gardens. The next best thing to mother nature's own humus, it is indispensable as a soil conditioner, plant fertilizer supplement, and plant protector. Compost made in the backyard has the added virtues of being both environmentally sensible as a method to recycle yard waste and spare diminishing landfill space, and of being virtually free, after you build your bin. There is also another benefit to be found in compost, that is the benefit it offers to the person who is engaged in producing it and using it. The investment in energy and time that results in a valuable product, the satisfaction of accomplishing physical work and enjoying the outdoors through the seasons, the feelings of satisfaction about returning something to the earth rather than just taking from it--these things are not easily measured. However, they are nonetheless important benefits.®MDNM¯