Were you foresighted enough to make compost from your fallen leaves, plant debris, and grass clippings last autumn? If so, it should be ready for use about now. If that was one of the things on your to-do list which never got to done, you generally can buy the “black gold” from your garden center—or perhaps even from your local municipality, since some towns leverage the leaves they pick up in the fall by composting them.
First, determine whether or not your compost truly is well-rotted by checking to make sure that it appears dark and fluffy, with no unpleasant odors, and is no longer retaining heat. If it looks ready to crumble, you can apply it to the surface of empty garden beds several weeks before you plan to plant them.
Provided that your garden loam’s texture and fertility already are good and you just are practicing maintenance, you can simply spread a 2 to 3 inch layer of compost over the top of the bed and incorporate it into the top 9 inches or so of soil with a spade or tiller. However, for ground that is either too heavy to drain well or too sandy to retain enough moisture, you should work about 4 or 5 inches of compost into that top 9 inches.
To fertilize existing perennial beds with compost, scatter 2 to 3 inches of it over the surface of the soil, keeping it back from the plants’ stems , and allow nature to eventually incorporate it into the ground. This helps preserve many of the beneficial bacteria and fungi which could be disturbed by too much tilling, plus it will avoid your chopping up any earthworms which might want to wriggle down into your soil. The layer of compost can even act as a mulch for a while, suppressing a few weeds and saving your back as well as the bacteria.
Should you want to add compost to your pots or grow-bags, rub it through a screen with 1/2-inch holes first, to make its texture finer. Then combine it with equal parts of peat moss or coir, perlite, sand, and top soil. For the latter, purchased bagged soil probably will work best, as it is less likely to contain weed seeds than your own garden soil is.
You also can make a free liquid fertilizer from your compost by packing about a gallon of it into an old pillowcase. Suspend the case like a teabag inside a five-gallon bucket of water for several days, stirring that water frequently. You then should dilute the “tea” by adding one part of it to ten parts of water before you water or spray your plants with it.
No matter how pretty compost looks, it does contain those bacteria and fungi mentioned earlier, which may not be as good for you as they are for your garden. So always treat it like dirt and wash your hands well after handling it, just as you would for other soil. Then sit back and wait for your garden to become considerably more lovely and lively!