Compost volunteers–You Can Grow That!

Home composting has  benefits beyond turning plant-based food waste into a rich soil amendment. Most home compost piles reach temperatures sufficient to break down plant scraps and shredded leaves, but do not get hot enough to kill all seeds. A happy result is compost volunteers – self-sown perennials and vegetables that are super easy You Can Grow That! plants.

ycgt_blog_post_graphicOn the 4th of each month, C.L. Fornari at Whole Life Gardening urges garden bloggers to champion the virtues of gardening in You Can Grow That! posts. All of this month’s, as well as previous posts, can be found at the You Can Grow That! website.  Since starting You Can Grow That! in October 2012, dozens upon dozens gardening and growing ideas have been shared. It’s worth the visit to You Can Grow That! to dig into the brains of gardeners with a passion for encouraging others to green up their thumbs.

Many have written about the virtues of composting. A web search of the topic reveals many good tutorials on how to compost. What often goes unmentioned in composting discussions is that home compost piles frequently sprout unexpected volunteer plants. I find these surprises one of the best side-benefits of composting.

Over the years I’ve come to expect volunteer Lamb’s Ear (Stachys byzantina) since I add spent Lamb’s Ear flower stalks to my compost each summer. I use these volunteers to fill in any holes that develop in my Lamb’s Ear borders and to add a touch of fuzzy gray texture to other perennial beds. I do the same with Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea). Foxglove and Lamb’s Ear volunteers, along with the ever-present sedum and a self-sown mullein also do a nice job of prettying-up my compost bins.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Here are my full, and fully decorated, bins in early June. Hidden under the outer and top leaf and stick layers are mounds of ready-to-use compost that, shortly after this photo was taken, was dug out and used to fill newly-built raised vegetable bed. But before removing all the rich compost I set aside the two squash plants that sprouted from the top layers of the compost bins.

I was intrigued to find out what type of squash would grow from these volunteers so, once the raised bed was sufficiently filled with compost, I transplanted the squash volunteers to the front of the raised bed and added plum tomatoes to the rear.

In a very short time, it became obvious these were heavily vining squash, so I added some upward supports for them to grow on.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The vines have now completely covered the supports and are spreading along adjacent ground. They are at least 10 feet long and growing.

Their flowers bring a flurry of bee activity and they have revealed their identities. One is producing delicious yellow summer squash and the other is acorn squash.

Allowing these compost volunteers to grow in a non-compost bin location has provided and promises to continue to provide virtually free food with minimal effort.

All I had to do is have a compost pile, recognize my volunteers as squash, and allow them to continue to grow.

You don’t have to be an experienced gardener to do this … You Can Grow That! too.

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8 comments for “Compost volunteers–You Can Grow That!

  1. August 4, 2013 at 11:22 am

    Your tips and words of encouragement are greatly appreciated. I really enjoyed your garden photos.

  2. August 4, 2013 at 3:10 pm

    I love it! Thanks for the inspiration! I was just thinking I needed to start a compost pile…

    • August 5, 2013 at 8:40 am

      Jean, even small compost piles are valuable. Hope you start one soon.

  3. August 4, 2013 at 3:48 pm

    Wow, what a bounty. I’m curious to know if you let your mullein grow and seed. I’ve been finding lots of volunteers in one corner of my garden this year and so I’ve been looking into it and I’ve seen some references to mullein being invasive, although not here in CT. I’m just wondering if I’ll be overrun with it in a few years if I let it go to seed.

    • August 5, 2013 at 8:37 am

      Debbie, I let some mullein growing in select places go to seed. Goldfinch love to perch on the tall stalks and dine on the seed. Like any freely self-sowing plant, I edit where I allow mullein to grow. The tall yellow blossoms and large fuzzy leaves provide wonderful structure to wild areas and in certain spots of more cultivated beds. The young plants are easy to identify, so when growing in an unwanted area these are easily pulled and tossed into the compost.

      Mullein is considered invasive in some western states, but not in CT.

  4. August 13, 2013 at 9:21 am

    Wow, what a beautiful compost pile!

    I came across a neat article in New York magazine a few weeks ago about urban composting. I’m in an apartment so composting is difficult, and my garbage always stinks! The article suggested putting scraps in a paper bag in the freezer, then tossing the bag into a friend’s pile, or a municipal pile, later on. So far so good. The freezing eradicates smells and my garbage can is getting more pleasant.

    • August 14, 2013 at 9:04 am

      Amanda, my compost pile shows what one can do when living on ample land. It would require more attention if I lived in a more populated area. You, living in an apartment, have to be really committed to composting … I commend you. Where do you deposit your frozen compost? A friend’s pile?

  5. August 15, 2013 at 10:12 am

    Yes, my boyfriend has a pile, but I’ve yet to throw out one grocery-sized bag yet. It’s been a few weeks since I started, so it’s taking some time to fill it up.

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