Margaret Lauterbach

Add composting to your garden cleanup routine

Compost give your garden a headstart on next spring’s growing season.
Compost give your garden a headstart on next spring’s growing season.

Those of you who’ve heard it before may appreciate the reminder on why we compost. All plants grown on our land have taken nutrients from the soil to grow. Unless we replace those nutrients, our land just grows poorer and poorer.

When we first moved to Boise, we had one neighbor who put everything back in the soil, another one put nothing back, and angrily rebuffed my offer of some of my collected leaves. The latter then grew corn, a variety that usually ran about five to six feet in height, but in his soil barely made three feet. He tidily tied up the stalks after harvest and put them out for trash pickup, further starving his soil. The other neighbor grew normal-sized corn and chopped stalks for compost at summer’s end.

Leaves will be falling soon, so please remember they too have taken nutrients from your soil for their development. Picking them up with a power mower shreds them so they’ll decay more quickly than they would if left intact. If you don’t have room for a compost pile, dig a hole or a trench and bury vegetable wastes, spent plants and leaves. Some shredded leaves could be used as mulch for ornamentals after the ground freezes or just as a cover for bare soil.

Bag these extra leaves and set them aside until the ground does freeze. Mulching before a freeze may spur new plant growth that you do not want at this time of year. Later mulching keeps ground from heaving and thawing, that action damaging or destroying roots.

Some folks have grown Russian Mammoth sunflowers, and now wonder what to do with the long heavy stalks. Those stalks are very useful tools to push plants and leaves through mulcher/grinder machines without destroying the machines or losing fingers. If you don’t grind your own spent plants or know anyone who does, put stalks out streetside with a “free” sign. I think they’ll be picked up by a grateful gardener.

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Gardening magazines and references advise thorough cleanup of garden areas to prevent destruction by squash bugs and other overwintering insects near the garden. This is a cruel joke. Squash bugs may overwinter in mulch, under your deck, in your eaves or even inside your house if given a chance, not content to spend months in or near a frozen garden. Adults survive winter, then begin laying eggs when squash first blossoms in my garden.

One favored crevice is the post end of basket-weave fences, another the space between bottoms of stacked pots. The space under loose boards (we all need boards of one kind or another in the garden at certain times) is a favored location for many insects and spiders.

Some Lady beetles spend their winter clustered together at certain spots in our foothills, then disperse in spring, others overwinter in garden residue as adults. Stink bug adults overwinter in crevices or indoors (their preference).

Many destructive insects overwinter as pupas tucked into soil, but so do many beneficial insects. The same is true for those that overwinter in bark crevices. Spraying with dormant oil at the appropriate time (label gives instructions on acceptable temperature at time of spraying) suffocates eggs and adults, but it may not kill insects that are protected by pupas or cocoons. Destructive insects that overwinter in bark crevices include aphids, scale, thrips, spider mites and peach tree borers, for example. Codling moth larvae spend winter inside a silken cocoon tucked under bark or similar crevice, so protected from sprays. Beneficial insects that spend winter in similar surroundings include minute pirate bugs, some lacewings and spiders. Since I don’t want to kill the latter three, I don’t use dormant oil spray.

Garden cleanup, reducing debris, may unintentionally destroy preying mantis egg cases, spiders or other biological helpers in the garden. I’ve found relying on biological control is far better than human control, since insects can find and kill other insects better than I can.

Send garden questions to or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83705.