Brown and Carl Rosen
New laws that
limit dumping leaves and clippings into public landfills have reawakened
public interest in composting.
a process that allows naturally occurring microbes to convert yard
waste, such as leaves and grass clippings, to a useful organic soil
amendment or mulch. Gardeners have used compost for centuries to
improve the physical condition of soil and to add some of the nutrients
needed for plant growth. Incorporating compost into light, sandy
soil helps it hold both moisture and nutrients, while adding it
to heavy soil improves drainage.
To produce compost
efficiently from yard waste several conditions must be met. The
micro-organisms responsible for decomposition need oxygen, water,
and nitrogen. Particle size also affects efficiency. The smaller
the plant pieces, the more rapidly they will break down. Use a shredder
or power mower to chop up leaves and small twigs before adding them
to the pile.
To save space, keep your yard looking neat, and speed composting
time, plan to contain your compost in some type of structure. Typical
dimensions of a compost pile are 5' x 5' x 5'. Simple bin type structures
can be built from woven wire fencing and metal posts. More permanent
and elaborate structures can be made from rot-resistant wood, wire,
and metal posts.
Your Compost Pile
Locate your compost pile close to where it will be used so it won't
interfere with activities in the yard or offend neighbors. The pile
will work best where it is somewhat protected from drying winds,
yet receives partial sunlight to help heat it.
materials can be composted besides grass and leaves: non-woody shrub
trimmings or twigs less than 1 /4 inch in diameter, faded flowers,
weeds, left-over plants at the end of the gardening season, lake
plants, straw, coffee grounds, eggshells, fruit and vegetable scraps,
shredded newspaper (black and white print), small amounts of wood
ash, and sawdust. Sawdust requires the addition of extra nitrogen;
wood ash raises compost alkalinity and may result in nitrogen loss
from the pile.
be little need to compost grass, since clippings may be safely left
on the lawn if you mow regularly and remove only 1/3 of the blade
length each time. If you do compost grass, mix it with other yard
waste. Grass clippings, alone, pack down and restrict air flow which
limits the availability of oxygen that is needed for decomposition.
should NOT be composted. Pet feces can transmit diseases. Meat,
bones, grease, whole eggs, and dairy products attract rodents and
other animals. Badly diseased or insect-infested plants and weeds
that are loaded with seed may not heat up enough to be rendered
Your Compost Pile
Build your compost
pile in layers. Begin with eight to ten inches of leaves, grass,
or plant trimmings. Water it to the point of being moist, but not
soggy. Then add a nitrogen source, such as ammonium nitrate, ammonium
sulfate, or an inexpensive high nitrogen lawn fertilizer without
pile with 1 /3 to 1 /2 cup of fertilizer per 25 square feet of surface
area (a 5' x 5' bin). If you live in a rural area and have access
to livestock manure, you can use a two inch layer of manure as your
You may choose
to add a one inch layer of soil or completed compost over the nitrogen
to increase the number of decomposing microbes in the pile. However,
most leaves and plant scraps have enough micro-organisms to get
the job done without the addition of soil or compost.
layers until the pile reaches a height of five feet, watering each
time you add new layers.
It is normally
not necessary to add lime to your compost pile to improve the breakdown
of most yard wastes. Finished compost is usually slightly alkaline;
if you add lime during the decomposition process, it will probably
be too alkaline when completed. If your pile contains large amounts
of acidic materials such as pine needles or fruit wastes, you might
add lime, but no more than one cup per 25 cubic feet of material.
Excessive lime application can lead to loss of nitrogen from the
Your Compost Pile
An active compost
pile will heat to somewhere between 130 and 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
As the center cools, turn the pile to help speed decomposition and
minimize any objectionable odors. You will need to do this once
or twice a month. Continue to water your compost pile periodically
to keep it moist but not soggy. You can add a little fresh material
when you turn the pile, but generally, you're better off beginning
a new pile.
compost pile will be ready in two to four months in the warm season,
whereas an untended pile will take a year or more to decompose.
When completed, your compost pile will be about half its original
height, and will have a pleasant, earthy smell.
There are many
structures for composting; no one structure is best. For a more
thorough description of different structures, refer to The Complete
Book of Composting by J.I. Rodale, Rodale Books, Inc. It should
be available at many public libraries.
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