Snoqualmie Valley Master Gardeners Tips: DYI Composting, Demystifying the Christmas Cactus

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Compost

These days we hear a great deal about compost – it’s available in bags or in bulk at nurseries, garden centers and landscape supply companies; our garden and food wastes are picked up to make compost; and have you heard of GroCo, a bio-solid product? You can even purchase compost from the Woodland Park Zoo packaged as Zoo Doo! And you can also make your own.

Compost is a natural product produced by the breakdown of organic materials (leaves, grass, twigs, food leftovers, vegetable garden residue, etc). It is often referred to as “black gold” for its use as a necessary and inexpensive supplement to garden soil. Compost is a soil amendment – it should be added to soil, not used alone as a planting medium.

Why Use Compost

Adding compost to any garden will improve the soil structure. West of the Cascades, the soil has a high clay content. By adding compost, the soil can be amended to a satisfactory consistency. What this does is loosen the clay soil by increasing soil pore space – improving root development and growth.  Adding compost to sandy soil improves water-holding capacity, reducing watering needs – especially during the dry summer months. Additionally, and not to be taken lightly, soil amended with compost is easier to dig.

Local and state governments encourage usingcompost to protect and maintain water quality. The Washington State Department of Ecology recommends the addition of compost at new construction sites before any landscaping (see and Due to its water-holding properties, compost prevents erosion and storm water runoff, also protecting waterways and the Puget Sound from contamination.

In addition, compost is rich in the “big 3” nutrients of N (nitrogen), P (phosphorous), and K (potassium), as well as many necessary micronutrients. The micro- and macro-organisms that help create compost from organic matter are retained in the compost and function to add nutrients, suppress disease by making plants stronger and healthier – as well as to discourage pests.

Finally, compost can be used as a mulch, which reduces weeds and retains water. Compost mulch created from woody bulking agents (wood chips, sawdust) is the best as it decomposes slowly and resists compaction.

Create Your Own Compost

Building a compost pile is very simple and costs virtually nothing but time and muscle. Build the compost pile away from the house in an area; one not required for other garden needs. It is best located near where garden tools are kept and a water source.

The simplest compost pile is one where the components are dumped or piled onto each other in an out-of-the-way area.  You can make the compost pile tidier by digging a shallow hole to about 1 cubic yard of material. Some of the compost will still be above ground, making it easier to turn.

If that’s still too messy, you can construct a cage, about three feet tall, from any type of plastic mesh or galvanized fencing material. I have used rebar or green fencing stakes for the framework and then wrapped the fencing material around the stakes and secured it with wire.

My favorite is the wood pallet design made from used pallets obtained from local merchants or through Craig’s List. Three pallets standing on end in a U shape make one compost bin; five make two adjacent bins, and seven make three adjacent. The pallets can be held together with 2-by-4 wooden struts in the corners, leaving the fronts open.

I prefer the three-bin method: one for the newly started, actively fed pre-compost; one for the working and “getting there” compost; and one for the cured, ready-to-use compost. After the bin with cured compost is emptied, this bin becomes the newly started, actively fed compost bin, and the other bins move to the next level.

Now all that is needed is organic material. Compost materials are divided as:

  • Bulking agents such as wood chips, sawdust, wheat straw and corn stalks, coffee grounds, egg shells, nut shells (low moisture, high porosity, low nitrogen)
  • Energy materials such as grass clippings, fresh dairy manure from chickens or rabbits, fruit and vegetable waste, and garden trimmings (high moisture, low porosity, high nitrogen)
  • Balanced raw materials such as ground-up tree and shrub trimmings, horse and cow manure, deciduous leaves, spoiled hay (low-medium moisture, medium porosity and medium nitrogen)
  • Avoid adding meat and dairy wastes as well as grass or garden wastes that have recently had herbicides or pesticides applied. The same goes for domestic animal waste (dogs or cats), plants that you don’t want to reseed, or noxious weeds that will most assuredly reseed.

For best results, mix one part energy source and two parts bulking agent by volume, giving a good mix for fairly easy composting. Balanced raw materials, which compost readily on their own, may be adding in at any time.

Unlike commercial composting facilities, back yard composting is a slow process. It may take six to nine months or more to obtain a good product. You can speed up the process by turning the pile every week or two and by “feeding” it often with fresh organic material. Sufficient moisture and some sunlight (but you don’t want to give up sunny garden space just for compost) will also help. You can also add worms and slugs that help speed the decomposition of material to be composted.

Over time the organic material will brake down by the soil organisms and produce a dark, rich, crumbly material filled with important soil elements and micronutrients. You can sift it if desired before applying to your garden, tossing the larger pieces back in the pile to be decomposed further.

With all of the fall yard clean-up materials – leaves, dead annual plants and clippings – this is a great time of year to start your own compost pile.

Want to know more about composting? Details are available on the Snoqualmie Valley Master Gardeners website.

Demystifying Christmas Cactus

The stores are now full of lovely pink, red, white, orange, and even purple blooming tropical-looking plants.  Are you tempted to buy one but worry it will be a waste of money because you will never get it to bloom again?  Go ahead!  Buy several.  You can get them to re-bloom with just a few simple guidelines.  Since there are several different types that bloom at different times of the year – Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, I am going to refer to them collectively as “Holiday Cactus.”

We call them cactus, but they are “tropical cactus” and unlike desert cactus, these holiday cactus don’t like heat or bone-dry soil.  They can be very long-lived and christmas cactusbecome family heirlooms with good care.  I currently have seven holiday cactus, including one that comes from my great-grandmother’s plant that would be over 100 years old now.

The key factors for successful flowering of your cactus are long, dark nights and cool temperatures. In order to achieve the long periods of darkness needed to bloom, some people provide artificial periods of darkness, like shoving them in a closet. I don’t do anything special except place them in a room that gets very little artificial light.

Four of my plants are in a guest bedroom with a southwest exposure.  They are on a table across the room from the window so they get bright filtered light.  These plants are setting buds now so should be in bloom around Christmas.  The other three are in a small office that has windows on three walls.  I’ve placed them against the wall that has no window so they don’t get direct sunlight. They are all in full bud now and will be in bloom by Thanksgiving.

Growing Guide

In general, care requirements include providing a cool environment and watering only when dry on top.

  • Soil and container:  use commercial cactus-type soil (or 1 part vermiculite to 2 parts sterile potting soil) in well-draining pots (I prefer clay pots)
  • Temperature:  daytime: 65-75; nighttime: 55-65; don’t place them in a drafty spot or near heat vents or fireplaces
  • Light:  provide bright filtered light; no direct sun especially in summer
  • Watering:  water only when the top inch of soil is dry
  • Fertilizing: begin fertilizing every 2 weeks when buds begin to form. Once buds form, don’t move the plant to a different location.
  • After blooming:  stop fertilizing when the plant stops blooming and keep plants fairly dry and cool. When new growth appears, resume watering when dry on top. You can also prune the plant by removing some of the longer tips; stick the bottoms into the soil and they will root to create a fuller plant.
  • Bud drop:  drafts or extreme temperature fluctuations may cause buds to fall off
  • Frequent wilting:  time to repot into a pot that is just a little bigger than the original pot; plants like to be somewhat pot-bound.

Holiday cactus can go outside in the summer if you are careful. I tried it this past summer and lost large portions of my heirloom plant due to too much sun.  It will recover but I learned a hard lesson.  If you want to put them outside in the summer or experiment with artificial darkness to get them to re-bloom, check out the links below for more in-depth care information.


Additional information on composting and other gardening practices can be found on our website at

[The authors, Carl Pergam (Compost) and Kaye Moreton (Cactus), are master gardeners in the WSU Extension Master Gardener Program. Extension programs and employment are available to all without discrimination. Evidence of noncompliance may be reported through your local Extension office.]


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