Another Midwest gardening season is complete, but there are still a few activities that need attention. Compost piles should be turned; gardening tools need to be cleaned and put away; and mounds of fireplace ashes have to be taken care of appropriately. Here are a few tips to help you handle these chores before the holiday rush:
If you constructed a compost pile with organic matter gathered this fall, it is time to turn the pile. Turning moves noncomposted material from the top and sides into the center, where it will break down more readily. Turn the pile once each month until the pile freezes. Several turnings before spring will ensure that all materials have had a chance to break down. Use a gardening fork to mix materials in a compost pile, moving materials from the top to the middle and from the outside to the inside. Compress the material as best you can, and add water to moisten the pile. Be careful: Too much water will cause the organic material to rot and start to stink; too little water, and the composting process slows to a halt.
After work is finished on the compost pile, take a few minutes for year-end maintenance on garden tools. Good tools are expensive and can last a lifetime with proper care and storage. Clean the tools with a wire brush and sharpen the edges. Apply a thin coat of oil -- such as WD-40 or similar light-weight oil -- to the metal surfaces. Wipe wooden handles with an all-purpose cleaner, and coat them with a thin application of wood preservative or deck sealant. This will prevent splintering of the wood as it ages. Store the tools in a protected, indoor area until next year.
For gasoline engines, drain the gas tank and apply a thin coat of light-weight oil in the cylinder after removing the spark plug. Clean or replace the spark plug if necessary. Clean or replace the air filter as well. This also is a good time to inspect power tools and determine if there are any parts that need to be replaced.
Wood ashes begin to collect this time of year. Some gardening magazines say ashes are a good fertilizer to put on your garden. Unfortunately, they contain no nitrogen, from 5 percent to 10 percent potash (potassium) and 1 percent to 2 percent phosphate (phosphorus). In some parts of the country, these nutrients need to be added regularly. Around here, however, most of our soils have abundant quantities of potash naturally, and only a portion of our garden soils show the need to add phosphate. Thus, the fertilizer value of wood ash is not that great. Likewise, it also tends to function like lime to raise the soil pH or make the soil more alkaline. Our soils are fairly neutral, so the addition of limestone is usually not necessary. Excessive applications of ashes may raise the soil pH, resulting in a deficiency of iron and causing poor plant growth.
The best thing to do with ashes is mix them into the compost pile. The acidity of the decomposing materials in the pile will offset the alkaline reaction of the ashes. In addition, the high nitrogen and low phosphate and potash content of compost will result in a more balanced fertilizer product for the garden and flower bed.