Garden Variety: Reasons to compost yard waste and how to start

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Compost is the best soil conditioner available for use in any kind of garden, landscape, or lawn. There are many kinds of compost available for purchase at most garden centers, but it is also easy to make with a little space and time. Making compost saves money and benefits the environment in addition to its benefits to soil and plant health. Fall is an ideal time to start composting because of the availability of compostable materials.

Money savings are the result of using the compost in the garden, yard, etc. Homemade compost and purchased compost provide the same benefits, but making it directly reduces or eliminates the need to purchase it.

Additions of compost to the soil improve soil texture and drainage, resulting in healthier plants. Compost provides small amounts of nutrients and makes nutrients that are already in the soil more available to plants. This reduces the need for supplemental fertilization, which reduces the amount spent on fertilizer. Healthier plants (the result of healthier soil) are better able to withstand pests, reducing or eliminating crop loss and the need for pest control products.

Making compost at home also saves money indirectly by eliminating the need to drive somewhere to get compost or pay for delivery of compost.

Use of compost benefits the environment for some of the same reasons listed above. Healthier soil produces healthier plants that need less fertilizer and pest control. Healthier plants have more robust root systems that reduce erosion and surface runoff.

In addition to the soil benefits, making compost at home instead of disposing of yard waste reduces the overall amount of waste going to the landfill and yard waste collection sites. Although Lawrence residents are fortunate to have yard waste collection and a recycling facility, those materials must still be trucked to the site and the finished product trucked out. This system is better than sending the materials to the landfill but uses more resources than home composting.

In fall, there are many materials available for composting including fallen leaves; annual flowers and vegetables after they succumb to frost; fruits and vegetables which are overripe or have insect/disease; plant wastes such as dead flower stems, seed pods, etc.; and weeds. Plant-based kitchen scraps and a few miscellaneous items including coffee grounds, eggshells, and wood ashes are also compostable.

To start composting, there are three basic options: simply start a pile on the ground, build some sort of small enclosure, or obtain a bin. Then, add compostable materials. Depending on the types of material added, size of the pile, and microorganism activity, the materials will be broken down into a usable form over a period of several months. For the most part, compost piles and bins require very little maintenance and fresh material can be constantly added.

The composting process may be speeded up by watering the pile or bin over extended dry periods, even during the winter when temperatures are above freezing. Turning the compost periodically may also help.

Plans for DIY compost enclosures are available in various composting guides published by universities with Extension education systems such as Kansas State University, University of Missouri, and University of Nebraska. There are also various books and other guides on the subject that include additional tips for composting methods and producing a high-quality finished product. Avoid making it more difficult than it needs to be – most of the time, compost will make itself if left alone.

Gardeners sometimes hesitate to compost at home because of concerns about smell and appearance. Home compost bins rarely produce a smell. If they do, they may be out of balance or have a layer that is preventing water movement, and these things can be fixed relatively quickly.

For gardeners who think compost piles and bins are unattractive, consider using plants as a screen. A couple of tall shrubs and/or a trellis easily hide a compost bin or pile. Use potted plants at the access area so they can be moved to add materials or remove finished compost. Use an enclosed bin to keep composting materials even more hidden if desired.

— Jennifer Smith works in regulatory horticulture and has worked as a horticulturist for various government entities. She has experience in landscape design and maintenance and as an educator.


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