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Compost Top-Dressing: A Nurturing Blanket for Your Lawn and Garden

The 100-year-old lawn at Taliesin in Wisconsin is top-dressed with compost from Purple Cow Organics.

The 100-year-old lawn at Taliesin in Wisconsin is top-dressed with compost from Purple Cow Organics.

The inspiration for today’s post comes by way of Taliesin, the Frank Lloyd Wright designed home in Spring Green, Wi. By the legendary architect’s directive, the grounds are beginning their second century of organic maintenance this year.

That means Taliesin’s lawns were planted before the Titanic set sail, and before Arizona and New Mexico were states. That means they’ve been alive longer than the field at Fenway Park in Boston, where the head groundskeeper hawks chemical fertilizer and writes books about how to maintain Major League grass around your own home. I wonder if Dave Mellor and any of his breathren have ever been to Taliesin to experience its serenity, majesty and, most significantly, healthy landscape.

The intent here, however, is not to pick on Dave and others who make their living perpetuating the modern marketing myth that stuff to make your lawn green needs to come from a bag or a spray tank. Rather, I want to point out the compact blue machine on the Taliesin lawn. It’s a compost spreader full of, in this case, bulk compost from Purple Cow Organics made right in Wisconsin. People ask “What’s the best compost?” almost every day and the best answer always begins with finding a local source wherever possible. The Badger state just happens to be home to one of the best compost companies on the planet.

In the Organic Lawn Care Manual, I continually stress the importance of compost for a healthy lawn. It improves fertility by bringing soil back to life and, most importantly for many areas of the nation, improves the water-holding capacity of the soil. I recommend blanketing the lawn with a quarter to a half inch layer in the spring and fall in the first year of the transition from a synthetic chemical program.

Don’t apply so much that you smother the grass; it is possible to burn lawns with compost, especially if you apply it in the heat of the summer. Tips of the grass should always be poking up through the compost when you’re done.

It’s a remarkably scary process for some folks. Either they’re afraid of doing it wrong, applying too much or too little, or wary of all the labor required. The truth is that lawns are forgiving, so even if you burn them a bit, they’ll usually recover. And good, finished compost should be lightweight, with the relative consistency of dry peat moss. A wheelbarrow load isn’t heavy and raking it across the lawn is somewhat time consuming, but not really what you might call hard work.

The photos, below, showcase just a few of the tools and techniques that can be used to get the compost out on the lawn.

This gasoline-powered machine can be maneuvered around tight spaces to distribute the compost evenly.

This gasoline-powered machine can be maneuvered around tight spaces to distribute the compost evenly.

These piles of compost were spread by wheelbarrow last fall in preparation for overseeding with grass seed. The lawn was aerated first.

These piles of compost were spread by wheelbarrow last fall in preparation for overseeding with grass seed. The lawn was aerated first.

In this shot, from the Organic Lawn Care Manual, I am spreading out the piles of compost with a landscape rake. Afterward, it's a good idea to feature the compost in with a bamboo or leaf rake.

In this shot, from the Organic Lawn Care Manual, I am spreading out the piles of compost with a landscape rake. Afterward, it’s a good idea to feature the compost in with a bamboo or leaf rake.

The steam coming off this truck as the compost dumps should be a red flag. The presence of heat means the compost is not "finished" or fully decomposed. Hot compost can burn lawns and other plants; it should be further aged prior to use.

This load of compost, by comparison to the one above, is fully finished and ready for use.

This load of compost, by comparison to the one above, is fully finished and ready for use.

OTHER COMPOST CONSIDERATIONS:
1) Be a good shopper and ask good questions. Buying compost in bulk is a challenging proposition and no two composts are created equally; components will differ from batch to batch and, in the case of municipally produced composts, sources may include grass clippings tainted with synthetic chemical weed killers.

2) Do a simple germination test prior to your purchase. Simply put a few seeds of annual ryegrass into a container of the compost, keep it watered, and wait a few days to see if the seeds germinate readily. If the seeds germinate and the grass appears to grow quickly, then you probably have safe compost. If the seeds don’t germinate, then either the compost likely isn’t “finished” or it’s tainted with pesticides.

3) Give it the touch and sniff test. The texture should be granular with few recognizable objects inside (seashells and wood chunks are OK; other debris may be sign of a sloppy operation). The appearance should be dark brown to black when the compost has dried in the sun. And, speaking of moisture, the compost should not be overly wet when you’re using it; toting it can be more difficult, both from a weight and spreading standpoint. As far as smell, it should be sweet and earthy, not pungent or reeking of ammonia.

4) Compost is the single best way to increase the percentage of organic matter in the soil — and each percentage point increase in organic matter raises the soil’s water-holding capacity by 50 percent. That’s an important consideration when factoring the true cost of the product. In other words, bulk compost may seem expensive, but if you’re lowering the cost of water and fertilizer in the equation, then the bottom line may be net savings.

About The Author

Paul Tukey

An international leader of the green movement, Mr. Tukey is a journalist, author, filmmaker, TV host, activist and award-winning public speaker, who is widely recognized as North America's leading advocate for landscape sustainability and toxic pesticide reduction strategies.

Number of Entries : 1023
  • Sylvester Stolon

    When buying bagged compost that’s not familiar to you, first buy one bag and open it in order to inspect it. If it doesn’t pass the “touch and sniff” test, don’t buy any more. I learned this lesson the hard way. I bought 25 bags of cottonburr compost at the local hardware store and found it difficult to spread because it was not completely composted. And I paid $9 per bag for this junk!

    At a garden shop 40 miles away, I bought much better cottonburr compost–three bags for $14. This stuff certainly passed the “touch and sniff” test. In fact, I used very little fuel to haul 840 pounds of it home. Along with overseeding, this compost has helped in resuscitating my dying back yard.

  • Tabitha

    Can you blanket with compost even during a drought? For instance, would it still be beneficial to lay compost the night before and then water in the morning?

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