Techniques for Winter Garden Composting

Garden composting involves creating a compost bin right in your garden bed to work the soil during the off-season. Garden composting is very simple, kind of fun and takes a small amount of effort compared to the reward of having less work to do in the next growing season with more nutrient rich soil available to your tomato plants.

Late fall as soon as all your tomatoes are harvested is a good time to set this up. Here are my steps:

1) Secure as many coffee grounds as you can. Most coffee shops and expresso stands are more than willing to give away spent coffee grounds for free. All you need to do is ask. I can usually fill my trunk with bags of grounds from just a few stops in under an hour.

2) Gather as many fallen leaves as you can. These are quite plentiful in fall, if you don't have enough from your own trees, ask around. I get several full bags from a landscaper I know who is more than happy to drop them off at my house.

3) Purchase or acquire enough burlap to cover the beds with two layers. Burlap is available by the roll in garden centers; I've heard that sometimes burlap bags can be had free from a coffee distributor.

4) Run over the leaves with your lawnmower to shred them up.

5) Remove all weeds from tomato bed.

6) Cut spent tomato plants at ground level, leaving the root system in the soil. 

7) Completely cover the top of the tomato bed with 3-5 inches of coffee grounds.

8) Cover all the coffee grounds with a thick layer of shredded leaves.

9) Optional: sprinkle Sluggo (organic slug deterent) on top of the leaves.

10) Cover the bed with two layers of burlap.

That's it! You're done! Now the worms will go to work rototilling your soil all winter so all you have to do next season is dig a hole and plant!

This really works! Before I tried garden composting, I had zero earthworms in my garden beds. I set up the composting in the fall and by spring my beds were full of happy worms. Lots of worms means healthy soil which translates into lots of tomato sauce!

Green Manure Cover crops or green manures are another way to compost directly in garden beds during the off-season. A green manure is a crop planted during the off-season that feeds the soil either while it is growing (in the case of legumes that fix nitrogen) or after it is turned under to break down in the soil. According to "The Gourmet Gardener" a wonderful book by Bob Flowerdew, a good green manure is:

--A soft succulent that will compost quickly under a plastic sheet

--Not a vegetable that must fit into the crop rotation

--Doesn't cause weed problems

--Is easy to get rid of afterwards.

Bob Flowerdew recommends red clover, poached egg plant (Limnanthes douglassii), miner's lettuce (Claytonia) and corn salad (Valerianella).

You can also ask at your local garden center or nursery for cover crop recommendations to use in your area. Basically you sow the seeds in the fall, let them grow all winter and then turn them under in the spring before they flower. You can put a plastic sheet over the bed after you turn them under. This will not only help break down the cover crop but also warm the bed for future tomato planting.

Return to Create a Tomato Garden for more info on creating your tomato garden.

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