- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Howard County gardener Jon Traunfeld transforms kitchen scraps and shredded leaves into black gold and uses it to turn his silty, clay loam soil into something good for gardening.

Gardeners call compost black gold for its soil value, says Mr. Traunfeld, state coordinator for the Maryland Master Gardeners, part of the Maryland Cooperative Extension.

“It improves the structure of the soil and makes it more fertile,” he says.

Mr. Traunfeld uses compost to help increase the size and quantity of the fruits and vegetables he grows in the 70-foot-by-30-foot garden he started 10 years ago. He also uses mulch, including shredded bark for his shrubs, and newspaper covered with straw and grass clippings for his garden, to help reduce weed growth and protect the soil.

Compost and mulch are gardening resources on which Mr. Traunfeld and other Metro-area gardeners rely to improve their gardens.

Compost, a soil amendment that can be made at home or purchased in bulk or by the bag, is decomposed organic material that is “an essential part of the soil,” says Tom Tyler, extension agent with the Arlington County Extension Office.

A mixture of materials, compost A mixture of materials, compost is used to help loosen, aerate and cool the soil, maintain the soil’s moisture and provide nutrients for plants. The key ingredients in compost are carbon, a source of energy for microorganisms in the soil, and nitrogen, their source of protein. “Brown” materials, such as dry leaves, straw, sawdust, shredded paper and coffee grounds, are high in carbon, while “green” materials, such as farm manure, grass clippings and kitchen scraps, are high in nitrogen.

Composting, or the production of compost material, occurs when the microorganisms feed off and break down the organic materials within the mixture, releasing nutrients in the process and causing the mixture to heat up from their activity. Plants take in these nutrients as their food.

The process recycles nutrients in soil “to feed the next crop,” Mr. Traunfeld says.

Compost can be produced at home using a composter or compost bins that help the mixture, a minimum of a cubic yard of material, decompose. Composting works best when the materials are kept aerated and moist like a wrung-out sponge, a process that under proper management can take several weeks to several years, according to the Virginia Cooperative Extension.

Once the compost is ready, it becomes a dark, crumbly and fluffy material that can be tilled into the soil with a garden fork, spade or rototiller, Mr. Tyler says. He recommends a quantity of 2 to 4 inches of compost tilled into the ground about 8 to 12 inches deep.

“You can put compost onto the top of the soil or work it into the soil,” says Adria Bordas, horticulture extension agent for the Fairfax County Extension Office and adviser for the Virginia Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners in Fairfax County.

Ms. Bordas recommends the second option because compost “has an opportunity to break down in the soil and put out nutrients quicker than sitting on top and having to leach into the soil,” she says.

Composting has taken Diane Berndt’s acreage at her Fairfax home from hardpan to soil with a “soft, beautiful texture,” she says.

Planting, at first, was like planting in a clay pot, Mrs. Berndt says, adding that the soil condition persuaded her to join the Virginia Master Gardeners club five years ago.

“Here, we basically have to build the soil,” she says. “I added more and more material to my garden. My plants are now growing, and they are beautiful.”

Mrs. Berndt has six front and side gardens with perennial herbaceous plants, azaleas, climbing roses, wisteria, shrubs and trees. A few hundred hostas are planted in the gardens and down the slope of her property.

“It’s a naturalistic, shady garden. It makes me feel peaceful,” she says. “It lacks the riot of colors that are so prevalent in so many gardens. It’s a garden of greens and textures.”

The compost Mrs. Berndt and other gardeners use also can be used as a mulch. Mulch is a protective material, organic or inorganic, used to cover the soil around plants to help maintain moisture around their roots, prevent soil erosion and keep soil at a moderate and level temperature.

“Mulching the plants is like clothing for people. It slows down evaporation, keeps the sun rays from drying up the surface of the roots and keeps weeds out, which compete for water,” says Stephen Cockerham, president of Betty’s Azalea Ranch, a garden center in Fairfax. “If you don’t mulch, the party is over for the plant.”

Mulches come in different colors and textures. The most common sources are shredded hardwood, a tightly bound material that can be used for most plants, and shredded pine bark, a lighter material.

“Bark absorbs water like a sponge, and as it dries out, it allows it to seep down into the ground at a slower rate,” says Scott Fitzwater, president of Virginia Ground Covers in Sterling, which handles mulches, compost, topsoil and firewood.

Wood used as a mulch for flowers and vegetables needs to be aged, Mr. Tyler says. Wood releases acid as it starts to decay and can harm the plants as it draws nitrogen out of the soil. Plants need nitrogen to maintain their green color.

Instead, Mr. Tyler recommends using ground-up leaves. Other possibilities include grass clippings, newspapers covered with straw, black plastic and colored mulches, such as ground-up wooden palettes and stumps, a lower quality and low-grade mulch.

Another material in abundance this summer — cicadas and their shells — is not the best source of mulch, Mr. Traunfeld says,

He says the insects will smell during decomposition if they are not mixed with other materials. He recommends adding cicadas to a compost pile.

“I wouldn’t mulch with them because of the potential [for them] to smell,” he says.

In addition, cicadas are not effective as a mulch because their bodies are mostly moisture. When they break down, there is little left of them except for the chitin that makes up their wings.

“I would say compost them, but don’t use them as mulch,” Mr. Traunfeld says.

Mulches work best when they are placed on top of the soil 2 to 3 inches thick, extension agents and gardeners say. To determine how many cubic yards of mulch are needed, Mr. Fitzwater recommends measuring the square footage of the area to be covered and multiplying that number by the depth in feet of mulch (most likely a fraction), and dividing the total number by 27. One cubic yard of mulch is equivalent to about nine bags of product, he said.

For smaller plants, Mr. Cockerham recommends covering the area with mulch before planting, then punching holes into the ground for planting. The mulch also can be placed around the plants once they are above ground.

Mulching and composting can be done anytime of the year except in the winter. Composting for annual vegetables and flowers can be done in the spring with the planting of new plants, in the fall or during both seasons if the compost is spread thinner.

“You don’t grow vegetables. You grow the dirt that grows vegetables,” Mr. Cockerham says. “You can’t lie to nature. If you fail, nature will let you know. If you do things right, things work out right.”

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