In the Garden:
Lower South
January, 2011
Regional Report

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These leaves in the walkways will decompose over time, yielding a rich compost that can be screened to make potting soil.

Garden Recycling: Chips and Leaves to Potting Soil

There are many great ways to recycle and repurpose various items for use in the garden. I've mentioned the idea of making homemade paper pots for growing your own transplants. Another favorite of mine is recycling organic materials. I know most readers are already familiar with traditional composting methods but there are many ways to use organic materials.

Our city and some local tree trimming companies are busy trimming trees and shredding the branches into chips. I have found that they will often be happy to dump a truckload of chipped up branches at your place for no charge. This stuff makes wonderful walkway materials and mulch around shrubs and trees. I use it for pathway materials because it makes for an all weather pathway even in the rainy season. Trees and shrubs like it because it helps create a forest floor environment over time as the materials decompose into the soil.

The chipped materials I put in our walkways breaks down slowly and I just add more to the surface every year or two to replenish that which has decomposed. In the vegetable garden I pile leaves down the walkways between raised beds. As they mash down with moisture and foot traffic, I'll add more several times over the coming few months. In the moist environment near the bottom of the trench the leaves turn to leaf mold and then compost.

I "harvest" these garden walkways once or twice a year. The wood chip pathways are harvested every two years or more. Harvesting involves raking back the surface materials and then shoveling the lower decomposing materials into a homemade screening box. You can make your own by using 2X4's to build a square box. I like to leave two of the boards sticking out on each of two opposite sides to serve as handles. It helps to make it large enough to sit over a wheelbarrow with the handles reaching over the sides to suspend it on top of the wheelbarrow. Attach 1/2" hardware cloth (wire mesh) to the bottom.

So back to harvesting; I shovel the mostly composted walkway material into the square and then shake the thing to cause the smaller composted pieces to fall through into the wheelbarrow. The larger undecomposed chunks are tossed back into the pathway or garden row to continue decomposing. If the walkways have decomposed quite a bit you will have a wheelbarrow full of wonderful, screened compost in no time.

This material can be mixed with a little sand, perlite or rich garden soil to create the particular blend of potting soil you want. This stuff is great for when you move growing transplants up into a larger container.

Sometimes I will run the screened, composted organic matter through a 1/4" mesh hardware cloth or one of the soil sifting rings to create a very fine textured compost for seed starting. It is good to add a little sand or fine textured perlite or vermiculite to this mix but best to avoid garden soil .

Sometime diseases that can destroy seedlings can come in with compost and garden soil. I seldom have this problem, but to avoid it you can pasteurize your potting soil by moistening it and heating it in an oven to raise the soil temperature to a target level for 30 minutes. Some gardeners use one of the large bags used for cooking a turkey, while others use a pan covered with aluminum foil. Use a meat thermometer poked through a hole in the bag or foil to monitor the internal temperature of the soil. Thirty minutes at 140 degrees kills most fungi, 160 most harmful bacteria and insects, and 180 degrees most weed seeds.

Don't overdo it, however. Overheating not only kills the good soil organisms as well the harmful ones, but can create compounds that are toxic to plants. Overheating soil in an open container in the oven can also create quite a smell that takes a while to go away. The plastic turkey bag or foil cover, along with heating to the proper temperature, will help minimize such odor.

We are busy starting seeds for transplants and have some rooted cuttings that will soon need to be potted up. With the ongoing process of starting seeds and moving them into larger pots you can end up needing a LOT of potting soil. Making your own is easy and, in my opinion, fun too.


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