Stock Up Now on Autumn Leaves, Pine Needles, and Composted Nannyberries

I spent a good part of the past week hauling pickup loads of composted goat manure (nannyberries) from Seal Cove Farm in Lamoine to Marjorie’s Garden, wheelbarrowing each load to a spot behind the vegetable garden, forming a berm that will spend the winter under a tarp.  It is an annual October event.  Three loads did not get us through this past season and I had to resort to purchasing composted manure in plastic bags, so this time around we bought four loads.

Farm owners Barbara Brooks and Lynn Ahlblad have been composting nannyberry-loaded stable litter since they adopted their first Saanen doe in 1976.  Now they milk over a hundred goats every day to produce prize-winning chevre and feta cheeses.  Along with this growth came the expertise to produce a composted manure that can’t be beat as a soil amendment in the vegetable garden or for topdressing around trees, shrubs, and perennials.

On each trip to the farm, either Barbara or Lynn will meet me with their front-end loader at the composting site where a horseshoe-shaped compost windrow defines the perimeter of a large cement pad.  At one end of the windrow, fresh stable litter is dumped.  At the opposite end is the finished compost that they load into my truck bed.  They turn the entire windrow once a week with a front-end loader to promote thorough heating, advancing each section down the line from raw stable litter to the finished product, a very uniform weed-free garden compost.

Autumn is the season to stock up on composted manure for the next garden season.  The supply is plentiful and the compost is drier than it will be in spring.  If you would like to purchase some of Seal Cove’s composted nannyberries, by the truckload or in smaller containers, give them a call at 667-7127.  You will need to bring your own truck or other container, as Seal Cove does not deliver.  You can learn more about Seal Cove Farm from their website, http://www.mainegoatcheese.com/.

Fill Your Compost Bins with Shredded Leaves, Pine Needles and Composted Manure

With the last load of nannyberry compost still on the truck, I spent a couple of hours raking up the fallen birch leaves and pine needles in the gravel driveway, hauling them to the drainfield on a tarp.  I raked them out over the grass and shredded them with the lawnmower, emptying the grass catcher into two compost bins (each 3 feet high x 3 feet wide on all sides) at the back of the vegetable garden.  When done, the bottom of each bin had a 6-inch layer of shredded leaves.

This mixture of dry leaves and pine needles constitutes the high carbon material needed to make good compost.  Many people believe that pine needles are too acidic to be composted and thus overlook this abundant source of carbon.  In fact, pine needles are no more acidic than oak leaves.  If composted intact, they do tend to take a bit longer to break down due to their waxy coating.  If shredded, however, they will break down almost as quickly as shredded leaves.

A 2:1 mix of shredded leaves and composted manure is ideal for making compost.

Equally important in the recipe is an ingredient high in nitrogen, like composted nannyberries or other composted animal manures.  Since the shredded material in each compost bins created a layer about 6 inches deep, I spread a 3-inch layer of the nannyberry compost on top and then thoroughly mixed the two layers with a pitchfork.  I then watered the mixture until it had the moisture consistency of a wrung-out sponge.  This 2:1 ratio of high carbon material and high nitrogen material is optimum for making good compost.

The neighbor has more leaves for the raking, so over the next two weeks we will repeat the above process to fill both compost bins with a mixture of shredded leaves and nannyberries.  As long as the piles remain unfrozen, we will bury our kitchen vegetable waste in the middle of the piles.  After the piles freeze, the indoor worm bin gets the veggies and crushed eggshells.

Now is the time to start stockpiling these key ingredients for making compost, filling bins as the essential ingredients are available in the right proportions.  Don’t expect the compost pile to heat up very much until spring, but as soon as all of the ice in the pile melts, the bacteria essential for composting will get to work.  If you monitor the temperature in the center of each pile with a compost thermometer and turn each pile inside out when it starts to cool, you will have usable compost by mid-summer.

If, like us, you get some of your leaves from neighbors, make sure that they have not used an herbicide or pesticide in the area where you are raking.  These chemicals can be taken up from the soil by tree roots, ending up in the leaves, in your garden compost, and ultimately in your vegetables.

Other Uses for Composted Manure in the October Garden

Topdress trees and shrubs with a 2-inch layer of composted manure, taking care not to pile the compost against the trunk.

I used the rest of the composted nannyberries still on the truck to topdress the soil around our ornamental shrubs and trees, spreading a 2-inch layer of the compost around each plant starting several inches away from the trunk.  Piling mulch of any kind against the trunk of a tree or shrub is the surest way I know of killing the plant.

This nannyberry berm will soon be covered with a tarp for winter.

When the ferny fronds of the asparagus plants finally turn brown, I will cut them down and burn them, denying the asparagus beetle an overwintering sight, then topdress the entire asparagus bed with 2 inches of nannyberry compost.  The rest of the nannyberry compost will remain on the berm until spring.

In late November we will close the gate to the vegetable garden for good.  Snow will pile up on the beds, cap the compost piles, bury the tarp-covered nannyberry berm.  Ice will sheet the pathways between beds.  In mid-winter, it will feel good to look out a rimed window to the back of the vegetable garden and know that all is set for another garden season just a few months away.

Author’s Note: THE NEW ENGLAND GARDENER’S YEAR, coauthored by Reeser Manley and Marjorie Peronto, is both a practical reference manual and a book you will find yourself reading cover to cover for discovery, inspiration, and pure enjoyment.  It will make good reading during the coming winter as you plan next season’s garden and it is a great holiday gift for gardeners throughout New England.  You can find it in local bookstores and online.

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About Reeser Manley

I was born in Laramie Wyoming but moved to the southeast at an early age. I was educated through my B.S. in Biology in the Columbus, Georgia area, then crossed the Chattahoochee River to earn my M.S. in Botany at Auburn University. For the next ten years, I worked as Horticultural Manager for the George W. Park Seed Co. in Greenwood, S.C. At 40 years of age, I decided to return to graduate school and in 1994, I earned a Ph.D. in Horticultural Science from Washington State University, Pullman, Washington. Fast forward through 10 years at university (7 at UMaine, Orono) and you find me teaching high school science in Eastport, Maine, the edge of the world, and writing a weekly garden column for the Bangor Daily News. My new book, The New England Gardener's Year, a Month-by-Month Guide for Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Upstate New York”, will be published later this year by Cadent Publishing. You can learn more about the book by visiting its Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-New-England-Gardeners-Year/187285218055676.)