When to till compost into soil for spring planting?

ally99January 14, 2011

Hi everyone! We're finally thawing out a bit after 8.8 inches of snow and ice this week! I made it out to my compost tumbler today and have a few questions.

I have a homemade tumbler that I filled all spring and summer last year and tilled into my soil in early November. Immediately following, I started another compost pile in my tumbler. My pile is staying pretty cold as our temps have been in the teens at night and 30s during the day. I have been adding lots of kitchen greens every week or so as they accumulate, but many of them aren't breaking down very quickly.

My main question is this: I plan to have a garden full of tomatoes and cukes this spring and will plant in April. I'm hoping as temps warm and I continue adding greens, the pile will heat up and will be broken down enough to use prior to planting this spring. How much time is needed between tilling in this batch of compost and planting my crops? That leads me into another question. If the compost isn't exactly the perfect texture, is it still usable? Or would I need to save it and work it into the soil next fall? Thanks for answering a noob's questions! :-) Ally

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joepyeweed(5b IL)

You could use the compost as mulch or topdressing and not till it all. Eventually the rain and worms will work the organic material into the soil. Lots of people prefer a topdressing method because it doesn't disturb the fungal strands in the soil that take a long time to grow.

If you are working with a compacted clay soil that needs to be workable, you could till it in, in essence, the same day that you plant.

Some people do trench composting, where they just put the raw materials in the ground, next to where the plants are. If your compost isn't finished, you could do something similar.

    Bookmark   January 14, 2011 at 2:10PM
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I'm with the above poster, I'd just put compost on as a top dressing a couple of times a year. You can work it gently into the soil around your plants with your fingers if you like, but the compost will probably change the soil just as quickly on the top as mixed in.

If your soil is really poor, tilled in compost will help at first, but the nutrients are going to get pulled out and dispersed into the poor soil probably within a month or two anyhow. So it's a short-lived advantage for all the trouble.

Top-dressing will gradually change the soil as well, but with less work.

At least that's how I think about it, without having done studies specifically. LOL

    Bookmark   January 14, 2011 at 3:02PM
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Great! Thank you both for your advice. I'll likely go that route and use it as a mulch. I'm assuming when watered, the compost nutrients will seep down into the soil and directly help the root growth by doing it that way.
Another related noob question: Can compost be too potent if it is that close to a tomato's roots?
Thanks so much for your help and advice!

    Bookmark   January 14, 2011 at 4:41PM
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Compost is what the maker makes of it. What you feed your compost decides its quality. Before putting unfinished compost around plants, consider just how "hot" it might be.
Hot being not referring to temperature, but to the stage at which the compost has matured.
You know that compost takes nitrogen out of the soil to effect breakdown of what is put into the pile. Hence, unfinished compost, still in the process of breaking down, will continue to use nitrogen from where it finds it.
If the compost is still in working stage, then it will continue to rob the soil which plants you put into it, might need to survive. Tender new plants, seeds especially, should never be put next to unfinished compost...dug in or not. Put next to tender roots, the plant will not do well and may die on the spot.

Don't be in such a rush to add compost to your soil when its not needed right away. New plants can start off in less than ideal soil and you can always add the amendments later.
If you must add compost, then buy some commercial composted sheep or other manure and give your compost pile time to come to something.

On other gardens, mulching the unfinished product can be done but keep it away from new plants just coming into the world. Especially true is don't top-dress around peony--you'll change the depth they're in and might prevent bloom.

    Bookmark   January 14, 2011 at 6:10PM
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Compost plunked down on soil as a mulch will be moved into the soil by the soil bacteria and earthworms, whether finished or unfinished, slowly and will not create problems with Nitrogen depletion (robbing the soil of Nitrogen).
Compost tilled into the soil if unfinished can create problems with temporary loss of Nitrogen as the soil bacteria concentrate on finishing that compost. So when tilling unfinished compost into the soil there needs to be a period of time between doing that and planting just as there needs to be when tilling in a green manure, or cover, crop, something around 3 to 6 weeks.

    Bookmark   January 15, 2011 at 7:07AM
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Thank you guys so much! I will use your advice and use this current batch of compost as mulch once my plants are established in ground. The pile is as cold as the air around it right now, so I need to get it heated back up again! I hope you all have a wonderful holiday tomorrow! :-)

    Bookmark   January 16, 2011 at 7:49AM
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I read this some where on another thread.

    Bookmark   February 15, 2011 at 12:13PM
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