Garden Plot: The dirty little secret of compost

Chris in Ocean View, Delaware, writes: “You recently said that shredded leaves typically don’t break down into compost until the following August. But for years you’ve been telling us to apply a top dressing of finished compost when planting in the spring. If the compost isn’t ready until August, how can it provide benefits to the growing vegetables for the current season?”

The short answer is that it can’t, Chris. The hard reality of composting is that most of us have learned to work a year ahead, buying bulk compost our first spring and then harvesting our own compost beginning the following spring.

After that, you got the rhythm going — and having those extra months gives the compost time to be most sincerely finished.

But you can make compost faster …

When I say that home piles of shredded leaves typically don’t become compost until the following summer, I’m talking about little to no work compost.

If you want to accelerate the process, mix lots of spent coffee grounds into your shredded leaves as you pile them up. No other kitchen waste — it just slows the process down. Then turn that pile a couple of times in the fall — before the weather gets really cold. You’ll have excellent compost in the spring.

“Turning”: Use a garden fork or pitchfork to move your pile from its current position to one a few feet over. This moves the last-to-compost outside parts to the fastest-to-compost inner sanctums of the pile; and vice-versa. Do this every couple of weeks until it snows, and then your leaves will be in the express lane.

Get worms to eat your kitchen waste

In our last thrilling episode, I revealed that most kitchen waste is not beneficial to the composting process. Spent coffee grounds are the big exception: Rich in nitrogen, they help a pile heat up and break down faster. Lettuce leaves and apple cores? Not so much.

So what should you do with your garbage?

Get a worm bin. But not just any worm bin — you want one with a stackable tray system. Most of these “worm condos” come with four trays, but you can add extra trays if you produce a lot of waste. Put fresh material into the top tray and harvest finished worm castings from the bottom one. No muss, no fuss — and no guessing about when your “vermicompost” is done.

(The worms leave the finished trays and move upward to get at the newly filled ones.)

I have the original “Worm Factory,” but a quick search online (worm bins) reveals that there are other brands now on the market. It makes a great holiday gift for the gardener or recycler in your life — hint, hint!

Leave that crepe myrtle alone!

Nancy in College Park, Maryland, writes: “You say not to prune at this time of year, but the leaves on my crepe myrtle have dried up and or fallen off. Why can’t I prune the branches back now so that the crepe myrtle will not be so tall? One of them is tall enough to touch the wires going from the street to my house. Also can I feed my trees now? And should it be done every four weeks?”

1. Pruning your crepe myrtle now could seriously damage it. And don’t worry about the power lines right now; the myrtle is not going to grow any taller until next year. You can — and should — prune crepe myrtles in the winter or spring, but if one of yours is close to true electric lines (as opposed to phone lines and cables), have a professional perform this dangerous task. Or call the power company and see if they’ll take care of it.

2. Do not feed any landscape plants now. They’re either going dormant or have achieved dormancy. Either way, they can’t utilize the food, so it all just washes into the Bay. (And no plant needs to be fed every four weeks!)

Berry good questions

Julie in Rockville, Maryland, is one of many who want to prune right now, despite my advice not to. “What about blueberries and raspberries?” she writes. “I thought you needed to cut off the branches that produced fruit this year?”

Absolutely not, Julie.

Blueberries are traditionally not pruned. The larger the plants get, the more berries you get. Just cut off any dead branches in the spring.

Many varieties of raspberry bear fruit on the same canes for two or three years; the only “pruning” I do to mine is to snap off any brown brittle canes that don’t green up by mid spring.

Julie continues: “What about fertilizing these two plants?”

Raspberries produce the best fruits when they are not fed; they are true “poor soil” plants.

You can — and should — feed blueberries a cup of Holly-Tone per plant in the spring. (Cover the fertilizer with some peat moss and compost to help the food become active.) A natural fertilizer, Holly-Tone also keeps the soil nice and acidic for low-pH lovers like blueberries.

Mike McGrath was editor-in-chief of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine from 1990 through 1997. He has been the host of the nationally syndicated public radio show “You Bet Your Garden” since 1998 and WTOP Garden Editor since 1999. Send him your garden or pest control questions at

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