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Composting Made Easy - Judith Edwards

First, Some Background:
My husband and I have been using organic lawn care methods and composting for about 10 years now. Prior to getting married, both of us used "traditional methods" for yard care - chemical fertilizers and bagging our leaves and grass clippings; but, we differed in one way. I was very reluctant to handle the fertilization myself so I hired a major lawn chemical company to do it for me. My husband who is an engineer and more familiar with chemical compounds and their effects, wouldn't use a company because he wanted to know exactly what they put on his yard. However, he wasn't exactly diligent in his yard work. I diligently hired people to do mine. When we got married, we bought a lovely house with a beautifully, landscaped yard. I wanted it to stay that way. I knew that he wouldn't agree to hire the company and I still wasn't willing to handle the chemicals myself. Then I happened upon Howard Garrett and his basic organic program. Howard, a/k/a the dirt doctor, promoted a method of gardening and yard care that abandoned the use of chemicals. It sounded good to me and when I ran it past hubby said sure let's try it.

Composting came about similarly.
Before marriage, I lived in a fairly treeless neighborhood, unlike Arlington. The first year when all the leaves fell, I was amazed. Raking and bagging the leaves required an the incredible amount of back-breaking effort. Further, I was really appalled at the number of leaf bags that went to the landfill. The first fall in our new house, the Fort Worth Star- Telegram ran a section on composting complete with plans for building your own compost bin. We decided to try it, and hubby would build the bin. Well, we still do not have a bin. We ended up piling it up in the back yard and leaving it. I came across a book on composting by Rodale and after reading it, I really became dedicated to composting. So now you know my reasons for making the switch to organics and composting: fear and laziness.

Compost is Mother Nature's method of recycling.
If you aren't composting, then you are not completely recycling. The United States has only about five percent of the world's population, yet we create more than 50% of the world's waste, making the United States the leader in waste production worldwide. Texas leads the U.S. in garbage production, making Texas number 1 in garbage production. In fact, the average Texan produces 5 lbs of garbage per day. This is not a distinction of which to be proud.

Yard wastes comprise 18% of the annual municipal solid waste created in U.S.
Texans' yard wastes make up 20% to 30% of the annual municipal solid waste created in the U.S., a figure which is estimated to rise to 50% during spring and summer. This is tantamount to an environmental crime. When you send yard wastes (leaves, clippings, wood chips and weeds) to the landfill, you are throwing away one of our most valuable renewable resources. Renewable resources are few and far between. It is incomprehensible to throw away the ones we have.

Compost can be used as mulch.
Mulching the bare soil is one of the basic tenets of gardening. Mulch helps maintain soil temperature, conserves moisture, hinders erosion, controls weeds, increases the number and activity of beneficial soil life like earthworms and microorganisms, and returns organic matter to the soil. Compost can be used as a soil amendment. It can increase the soil in areas that have suffered top soil depletion and can improve drainage in clay soils. It can increase water retention in sandy soils. In fact, soil containing compost can hold six times the water of soil without compost. Compost will decrease the use and need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides - two of the main bad guys in non-point source pollution of our natural waters. It is a superior alternative to peat moss which is expensive and is dredged from North American wet lands. So by using compost, you can help reduce some of the damage to wet lands. Finally, compost can help regulate the ph of the soil.

So what do you need to compost?
A bin? Whether or not to use a bin is a matter of philosophy, space, and quantity. If you decide to use a bin, use whatever best suits your needs and your style of composting. You can buy one, or if you are handy, you can build one. If you decide to purchase a compost bin, expect to spend anywhere from $50 to $250.00. Most experts recommend no less than a 3' x 3' x 3' bin for fast composting. Sound complicated or expensive, then do what I do, pile your compostibles in a big pile. The advantage to this style of composting is you are only limited in size to the biggest pile you can physically build and it's easier to turn and manage. Another advantage to pile composting is that bigger piles generate heat easier which hastens the decomposition time. A huge pile will decrease remarkably in size in a matter of days.

Where should you locate your pile?
Put it where you have room for it. One myth is that shady areas are unacceptable. Au contraire! We only have shade and our piles have regularly reached temps of 140 and on occasion have hit over 150. So, locate your pile where you want it.

What materials do you need to build a compost pile?
The ideal pile has a 3 to 1 ratio of carbon materials to nitrogen materials. So your pile should be 75% brown stuff or carbon materials, such as leaves, hay, cotton balls, paper towel rolls, toilet paper rolls, paper towels and 25% green stuff or nitrogen materials, like grass clippings, vegetable wastes, horse manure etc. Acceptable ingredients include leaves, hay, grass a/k/a green manure, vegetable wastes, fruit wastes, coffee and tea grounds, animal manures, hair, shredded newspapers - if the compost will be used only on ornamental bedding, egg shells and gift paper rolls, paper towel rolls, cotton balls, and cotton underwear. You may read that meats, fats, dairy products, bones and pet wastes make unacceptable ingredients for a compost pile. Actually, they are very acceptable. All of them will break down into organic matter; however, most of them take a little longer to decompose. My advice is if you are going to just pile the material up and walk away from it until it miraculously becomes usable compost 8 to 12 months later, you probably don't want to add meats, fats etc. - at least not in large quantities. However, if you are going to really work your piles, turning them regularly so you can gauge how well materials are composting, then I think you can add those materials to your pile. No matter what ingredients you choose to build your compost pile from, try to shred it or chop it up as much as you can. Smaller pieces create more surface area for the microbes to work to cause decomposition.

What causes decomposition?
The answer is little live beings called microbes. Just like any other living being, microbes must have air and water. If they don't get air and water, they don't stay around and work. Therefore, a compost pile should be as moist as a damp sponge. As you build your compost pile, wet the materials with water. It will take several times of turning the pile before the leaves will be wet enough. Air is provided by turning the pile and or/ placing pipes in the piles to allow air to get through. Many commercially-made bins have slats or are made of wire to allow air around the pile.

How often you work the pile determines how fast you will have finished compost.
Compost can be made in as little as 14 to 21 days. To make it that fast, you have to monitor the temperature and turn the pile every time the temperature drops which amounts to turning the pile every three to four days. If you aren't working the pile very often, you can have finished compost in about 8 months to 2 years. The longer you wait the finer the finished material will be. I have some compost that is the consistency of potting soil but that takes over a year to accomplish. A hot pile decomposes faster. A hot pile will kill weed seeds and diseases that could be detrimental to a garden. Hot piles are ones that reach 113 to 158 or thermophilic temperatures. Piles that reach 50 to 113 or mesophilic temperatures still decompose but do not have the side benefits of killing weed seeds and diseases.

Are you leery of composting or just don't think you can do it, but still have a leaf monsoon every fall?
Then mow them over with a mulching mower. The tiny leaf particles blend into the yard. You can't tell they are there. Moreover, they provide the perfect mulch for your grass and will still benefit your soil. Just no matter what you do, don't send those leaves to the landfill. It's such a waste!

Recommended reading:

The Secret Life of Composting by Malcolm Beck
Acres USA, 1997

Howard Garrett's Texas Organic Gardening Book by Howard Garrett
Gulf Publishing, 1993

The Rodale Book of Composting
Rodale Press, 1992

Don't Waste Your Wastes - Compost'em by Bert Whitehead
Sunnyvale Press, 1991