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Steer compost and vegetable gardens
June 17, 2014 1:33 PM   Subscribe

I asked this question a couple weeks ago. Nothing is growing, although I have been watering faithfully every day. The tomato starts don't look particularly happy either, and the dill, oregano, and pepper starts have died (though the basil, sage, and cilantro look ok).

I have a theory that this is because my spouse got pure steer compost rather than soil or a mix. Could this be it? If so, what should I add to it to make it hospitable to vegetable gardening (and then I will replant after I have added... whatever... to the beds). Just regular soil to mix in? Lime? What?? I always knew I was a brown thumb, but this is ridiculous.
posted by rabbitrabbit to Home & Garden (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
When you say pure steer compost - are you saying that your entire raised bed is made up entirely of compost? Or did you add that to the soil that was already there?
posted by Think_Long at 1:39 PM on June 17


What did you do with the steer manure compost? Was it mixed with soil or just spread out at a certain thickness (or in a raised bed)? Was the steer manure fully composted or was it still somewhat fresh?

Do you mean there is nothing growing at all? No seedlings, no weeds?
posted by ssg at 1:42 PM on June 17


Pure steer compost is way too hot to plant anything in. You have to mix it into your soil. Even after mixing you should probably wait a bit. We use mushroom compost and even that sometimes needs to air out after getting mixed in.
posted by Big_B at 1:43 PM on June 17 [2 favorites]


Steer compost has a higher salt content than some other composts, so even after you add soil to the beds, you may need to do some excess watering to rinse out the salts.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 2:09 PM on June 17


Yeah, many plants won't do well in pure compost as you've found out.

If you're filling your raised beds and not growing in existing soil you could get something designed for that purpose. In Seattle you could get Cedar Grove's Vegetable Garden Mix, for example. Those mixes typically contain compost so you don't need to add any.

If you're turning your existing soil or lawn into vegetable beds then tilling or double digging and adding 4-6 inches of compost to 12-18 inches of soil is probably sufficient. You may also benefit from adding a balanced fertilizer at the same time, but it's impossible to tell exactly without a soil test.

To salvage what you have I would remove ~2/3 of your compost (put it in bags and save it) and mix in soil from your local nursery. You want a soil mix that doesn't have much compost, because you have plenty. Depending on what's in the soil mix you get you may benefit from also adding an organic low nitrogen fertilizer--a fertilizer where the numbers are 0-X-Y, where X and Y are 5 or less (they don't have to be the same number.) There's plenty of nitrogen in the steer compost. Ask the nursery people about it and see what they recommend.
posted by sevenless at 2:14 PM on June 17


I'll throw in that tomatoes need to be pretty warm to germinate and generally like being pretty hot, which may explain why they've survived thus far while other things haven't. Does sound like they'd appreciate some soil/cooler roots though. I highly recommend The New Organic Grower by Eliott Coleman. It goes over backyard scale gardening, including accessible soil science and stuff. Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemingway is good too.
posted by jrobin276 at 2:27 PM on June 17


I've been told to avoid steer compost and use sheep compost instead. I don't know why, but it was a very successful gardener who told me.
posted by Amy NM at 3:11 PM on June 17


If it was composted, and not fresh, it may be okay. Was it a bagged product? If so, it will have the fertilizer content numbers on the front of the bag. In my experience, tomatoes seem to get a slow start. You put in seedlings, and they seem to do nothing for a week, but they should be starting their roots. If the nights have been chilly, that also slows them down. In the white pages of the phone book, or online, you can find the Cooperative Extension office, under US Gov't. listings. They likely have lots of useful information specific to your area, and maybe can put you in contact with Master Gardener. I just added bagged composted cow manure to my tomatoes in pots, and it's always pretty helpful. I mixed it with soil, about 1:1.
posted by theora55 at 4:02 PM on June 17


Yeah, sorry, but most plants don't do well in pure compost--regardless of the source, and regardless of whether it's properly aged. It's kind of like mistakenly thinking that if watering a garden is good, then growing your plants in the swimming pool would be be better...

I'd suggest replacing a goodly part of the compost with plain bagged topsoil, which is literally dirt cheap and won't have any additional fertilizer or compost in it. Composted cattle manure contains all three major plant nutrients (nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus) in a reasonably balanced ratio, and the basic combo of mostly dirt + some animal manure has been feeding the planet for millennia.
posted by drlith at 5:51 PM on June 17


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