Archive for Sunday, February 19, 2012

Garden Calendar: Waste not, want not — Tips for composting

February 19, 2012


Composting almost sounds like a too-good-to-be-true gimmick, but the rumors are true. You really can turn your leaves and kitchen scraps into fertilizer, use weeds and grass clippings to loosen heavy clay soils, and make potting mix from materials in your own yard.

Compost is easy to make, too, even for beginning gardeners. Use of a bin might require a small initial investment, but the value of what is produced soon outweighs the expense. Composting also requires a minimal amount of time and effort on your part.

Ready to get started?

Do’s and don’ts

Home compost piles and bins have some limitations – commercial and municipal compost producers can compost some things we cannot because of the processes used and the degree of heat reached in large-scale composting.

To make the best possible product in your home composting system, stick to the following:

Materials to add to the compost pile:


Grass clippings


Garden refuse

Hedge clippings

Straw and hay


Sawdust (from untreated wood)


Cold wood ashes

Kitchen scraps from fruits and vegetables

Coffee grounds

Egg shells (may take longer to break down than other materials)

Materials to keep out of the compost pile:

Pet waste

Meat scraps and bones

Milk products

Diseased plants

Weed that can re-sprout from roots, such as poison ivy and bermudagrass

Chemically-treated wood and sawdust from it

First, decide where you want to compost. A good location for a compost pile or bin might be an out-of-the-way corner of the yard or simply a place where the pile can be easily accessed. Apartment dwellers and adventurous composters might make compost in their homes with the help of a worm bin.

Once you have a location, think about whether you want to use a bin or simply a loose pile. Composting materials are less likely to blow away and will typically stay more condensed in a bin, but bins are not required to complete the process.

If you want to use a bin, you can purchase one at a garden center or build your own. Bins are easily made using wood slat fencing, woven wire, cement blocks, and/or scrap lumber. Examples of common structures are available in the Kansas State University publication “Making and Using Compost at Home,” available online or at the K-State Research and Extension — Douglas County office, 2110 Harper St., Lawrence.

Lawrence residents receiving residential trash service also have the option of purchasing a bin at a reduced rate through the city’s Waste Reduction and Recycling Division. Bins that typically retail for $60-$100 are offered for $40 through this program. A limited number of bins are available, and interested residents should contact the city at 832-3030.

As soon as you have a bin (or have decided not to use one) and a spot picked out, you are ready to get started. Start with two to three inches of soil or sand in the bottom, then add leaves, stems and foliage from garden plants, weeds, grass clippings, etc. in a two- to eight-inch layer. Make layers thinner for fine materials and thicker for coarse materials.

Add another two to three inches of soil or sand, and then add more plant materials. Keep layering in this manner until you run out of materials to compost or run out of space.

The rest of composting is really about patience. If you do nothing at all to the pile after building it, you will still get compost. Also, overworking the compost pile can kill the process with kindness, so I recommend just leaving it alone most of the time.

You can continue adding fresh materials to the top of the pile, or start a second pile or bin.

Following these steps should get you compost in four to six months. To speed the process, you can add fertilizer (one to two cups per square yard of materials), “turn” the pile, and water over extended dry periods.

The end product, compost, should be dark, moist, and crumbly and have an earthy odor. Compost is less fine than soil, but the plant materials it is made from should not be recognizable in it, either.

The most common problems with composting are too much or too little air and water in the pile. If the pile becomes too tightly compacted, loosen it with a shovel or fork. If the pile is too loose, add soil or finer materials to condense it. Dry compost should be watered, and saturated compost should be allowed to dry out. Occasionally compost that is too wet or contains a lot of green material can develop an ammonia odor. Separate green materials in the pile and avoid overwatering.

— Jennifer Smith is the Horticulture Extension Agent for K-State Research and Extension in Douglas County. She can be reached at 843-7058.


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