Most gardeners are a few years in when they learn that just like the crops we grow, garden compost is seasonal. Warm summer temperatures invigorate the life forms large and small that decompose organic matter, so autumn is a natural harvest season for garden compost. It's also prime time for building a new heap or filling a bin with the current year's spent plants, so let the composting fun begin!
Turning a Compost Pile
We should start by turning a pile that's been getting bigger since spring, which takes a couple of sessions behind the digging fork. The heap is comprised of garden weeds, flower heads, pruned twigs, leftover mulches and withered plants, in no particular order, and it's been on its own all summer.
As we chop and turn, we should pull out woody sticks that are still intact and toss them onto the new heap we should build using any current copious supply of dead veggies and their companion weeds. Then pause to add water to both heaps as needed to make all the material uniformly moist.
Ash appearance in the above pic is a good sign.
There are treasures to discover. In addition to looking for un-rotted tidbits to send through a second composting cycle, you can look for clumps of stuff that look ash, as if they had been burned, and put them in the new heap too. The ash appearance is evidence of work done by super-beneficial bacteria that work wonders in warm temperatures, so adding this material to the new heap is better than any activator you can imagine.
Once the turning and moistening is done, wait a week or two for the old heap to mellow, a mysterious 'finishing' process in which the texture, or crumb of the garden compost improves radically, probably in response to the incorporation of air during turning. It's a transition worth waiting for.
Using Garden Compost
Then comes the good part. Spread a handsome blanket of garden compost under vegetables you grow, which looks fabulous, nurtures the growing plants and gives the soil a microbial boost. It also keeps the compost at the surface, where weed seeds can be easily gathered by ground beetles and other hungry seed eaters.
Next move to beds that will be planted with cover crops in a few weeks. Here harness the power of crickets as weed seed consumers, which is easy to do by piling chunky compost over the cleared bed.
Fresh compost in raised bed