By Spring: When thoughts turn to compost

Landscaping in Alaska

Posted: Wednesday, March 08, 2000

This is as early a spring as I can remember, and am I thrilled. Last year gave me the screaming willies. The sights and smells of this new season are overwhelming, and I am like a newly awakened babe.

The spring light flows through the ruddy tips on the alders filling the scene with the sense of speed and urgency; small growing points poke through the surface of the earth as if they were fingers tearing their way out into the sun. The clear rousing call to life and rebirth is ringing through the forest and along the shore. The whole subterranean world is coming out into the daylight, and we are whooping, hollering and cheering as it comes.

Closer to home, our long indoor period has left us with a hunger for earth contact. We are fingering branches, poking at the soil and trying to remember just where we planted those last tulips. I can see the color between the leaves of the primroses already and the little sprouts of the Creeping Jenny are stretching out under winter-weathered leaves. I love to see the tender white filaments reaching for new soil, expanding their empire.

The kids are already muddy - just a few days ago it was snowballs and now it's time to get the bikes ready, baseball gloves are being oiled up and the basketball court is getting pounded back into shape. People are preparing for their first lawn treatments: moss is reviled, iron sulfate applied, thatchers tuned up and lawn mowers oiled.

The compost pile is ready for its first spring turning, the soil is crying out for the help of the busy microbes and worms. Your plantings will always go better with a wheelbarrow of this elixir, a couple five gallon buckets of sand and a couple of sacks of well-composted chicken manure. Many southeast communities are feeling the pinch of restricted solid waste disposal capacity, and composting is an essential civic function. Gustavus has a remarkable program that diverts compostable material from the dump and provides the soil building end product to the residents.

Spring cleanup is an opportunity to get a compost scene set up in a corner of the yard. Choose a spot that will be sheltered from the rain, if possible. Many homes place their compost bins under a spruce tree and cover it with a piece of plywood so the needles don't build up in the finished product. Pallets are an ideal framework, readily available and the price is right.

Air penetration is critical, so layer the more dense materials with a couple of inches of alder branches, and remember that composting is like combustion. It takes fuel, air and warmth: I use urea or ammonium nitrate as a nitrogen source to feed the bacteria so that it goes more rapidly. Strap on your pruning shears as you head out to the yard, as there will be a lot of small trimming jobs that can be done as you make your inspection. All these twigs and the stems of the perennials and the matted leaves under the shrubbery can all go into the compost.

Look at your yard with the fresh eyes of the spring, imagine that you are just coming awake too, and compare the layout with your needs and desires. What projects will be on your short list? Which ones are going to remain on the fantasy side? How much can you realistically get done this year?

People scurrying about getting material for their home developments call me for hints as to where they can get peat, rock, or roughcut untreated timbers for raised beds. Native materials will be the least expensive - you may have to do more work processing them, but you will be pleased with the results. I love the feel of creating soil, cleaning and blending the elements for the type of plants I want in each location.

Areas that are still frozen, or soils that are too waterlogged to work, may have raised beds built on top of them, stones and timbers can be placed, and the resulting spaces filled. There is a solution to any situation and they are usually pretty simple. The nice thing about gardening is that everybody can do it and that we all like it.

The world is calling us to come out and play. Get on your play clothes, pick up a couple of toys and have fun.

David Lendrum is a master gardener and, along with Margaret Tharp, owns Landscape Alaska. Any responses or questions can be sent to

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