Composting puts fall leaves to good use
Chris Milam Logan County Extension Agent for Ag/Natural Resources
As the fall season progresses, many folks obtain large amounts of leaves and other yard wastes that need to be removed from their property. Composting is a practice that is beneficial to the environment and at the same time allows property owners to get rid of these different yard wastes in an effective manner.
When you compost leaves, other yard debris and kitchen waste, a microbial process converts these items into a more usable organic amendment. You can use finished compost to improve soil structure in gardens and landscape beds. Compost also helps the soil hold nutrients and reduces erosion and water runoff.
You also can use finished compost as a mulch to help reduce weed problems, moderate soil temperatures and conserve soil moisture.
Composting yard and kitchen wastes also reduces the volume of material going into landfills. Yard and kitchen wastes comprise more than 20 percent of the waste generated each year. By composting these wastes, you help reduce disposal costs and extend the usefulness of landfills. This increases the return on your tax dollars.
Weeds free of seed heads and residues like vines and pruned limbs make a good addition to a compost pile. It is not necessary to remove grass clippings if you follow proper lawn management practices. If you decide to compost grass clippings, mix them with other materials like leaves or brush.
You also can compost many kitchen scraps such as fruit and vegetable peelings and cores, coffee grounds, tea bags and crushed eggshells. However, avoid cooked foods, meat, bones, fat or dairy products because they attract animals.
Put your compost pile on a well-drained site that will benefit from nutrients running off the pile. If you are just starting to compost, prepare the pile in layers of materials. This will ensure the proper mixing of materials to aid decomposition. It is best to alternate layers of green leafy material with brush or other woody material. If your compost material contains no soil, sprinkle a little soil or a compost starter in each layer to inoculate the pile with microorganisms.
Ideally, the pile should be 1 cubic yard (3 by 3 by 3 feet).
If you are only going to compost tree leaves, layering might not be necessary; simply add leaves as you collect them. When leaves are dry, add moisture.
Since dead leaves do not have adequate nitrogen for rapid decomposition, mix them with grass clippings or add high-nitrogen fertilizer to speed up breakdown. For example, add 5 ounces (one-half cup) of fertilizer containing 10 percent nitrogen analysis for each 20 gallons of compressed leaves.
To ensure good aeration and drainage, occasionally put down a 3-inch layer of coarse plant material like small twigs or chopped corn stalks, or use a wooden pallet.
The composting process can be completed in one to two months if materials are shredded, turned to provide good aeration, kept moist and supplied with nitrogen and other materials that cater to compost-promoting microorganisms. Otherwise, it may require 12 months.
Periodically turn the compost pile once a month or when the center of the pile is noticeably hot. This will help microbes more efficiently break down wastes. The more often you aerate, the more quickly you will have useable compost. Compost is useable when it fails to heat up after turning.
Adequate moisture is essential for microbial activity. Water the pile so it is damp but does not remain soggy. Your compost pile should have the moisture content of a well-squeezed sponge, so you can squeeze a few drops of water from a handful of material. It is especially important to supply water during dry periods and when you add leaves and other dry materials to the compost pile.
If the pile emits an ammonia smell, it is too wet or packed too tightly for oxygen circulation. Turn the heap and add some coarse material such as small twigs to increase air space.
Compost needs a balanced diet of carbon and nitrogen to break down effectively. Microbes that break down waste need a certain amount of nitrogen for metabolism and growth. Although tree leaves are relatively high in nitrogen, adding nitrogen fertilizer or high-nitrogen components will accent decomposition. Grass clippings generally are high in nitrogen and will enhance decomposition when mixed properly with leaves. Other organic sources of nitrogen are poultry litter, manure and blood meal.
Compost is one of nature’s best mulches and soil amendments, and you can use it instead of commercial fertilizers. Best of all, compost is cheap. You can make it without spending a cent. Using compost improves soil structure, texture, and aeration and increases the soil’s water-holding capacity. Composting improves both your property as well as environment.
For more information on composting and other environmental topics, contact the Logan County Cooperative Extension Service.
Source: Rick Durham, UK Extension Professor
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