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August 2001 Issue
Making Your Garden Grow
by Ronda L. Halpin
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A great variety of things can be composted at home, saving them from a one-way trip to the landfill, and turning them into a valuable soil amendment for home use. The list below describes some of the items you may want to add to your home compost pile:
  • GRASS/LAWN CLIPPINGS
    Actually, it's usually easier to leave grass clippings in the lawn, where they will decompose and benefit the soil directly. However, they can be composted, too. Be cautious to add grass clippings in very thin layers, or thoroughly mix them in with other compost ingredients, as they otherwise tend to become slimy and matted down, excluding air from the pile. Fresh grass clippings are high in nitrogen, making them a 'green' compost ingredient.

  • HAY
    Farmers are often very happy to get rid of spoiled hay bales that have been out in the rain, and will give them away or sell them at a low price. Grass hay will probably contain a lot of seed, which can resprout in your garden. Alfalfa hay will compost very readily. The greener the hay, the more nitrogen it contains. Be sure that any hay you plan to compost is well-moistened prior to addition to the pile.

  • KITCHEN WASTES
    Fruit and vegetable peels/rinds, tea bags, coffee grounds, eggshells, and similar materials are great stuff to compost. They tend to be high in nitrogen (this puts them in the 'greens' category), and are usually quite soft and moist. As such, kitchen wastes need to be mixed in with drier/bulkier materials to allow complete air penetration. Many people compost their kitchen wastes in enclosed worm bins or bury them 8" deep in the soil, to keep from attracting pests to an outdoor compost pile (check with your local government to see if it has regulations about this -- some forbid open piles containing food wastes because of the pest issue). Avoid composting meat scraps, fatty food wastes, milk products, and bones -- these materials are very attractive to pests.

  • LEAVES
    If you live in an area where autumn leaves are still thrown away as garbage, cash in on the bounty each year by acquiring your neighbors' leaves! Generally, leaves are an excellent compost ingredient. They can mat down and exclude air, though, so be sure that any clumps are thoroughly broken up, or that the leaves are only used in very thin layers. Ash and poplar/cottonwood leaves can raise soil pH if used in compost -- this may not be beneficial if your soil is already alkaline, as many soils are in the West (especially in semiarid and arid climates). Dead, dry leaves are in the 'browns' category, while living green leaves contain abundant nitrogen and are considered 'greens'.

  • MANURE
    Horse, cow, sheep, and poultry manures are often available for free from local ranches, farms, and stables. They can burn plants if applied when fresh, so be sure they get well composted. Manures typically contain quite a bit of nitrogen (the fresher the manure, the more nitrogen it contains) and are considered a 'green' ingredient. Some manures may contain weed seeds. Fresh manures can get a compost pile to heat up quickly, and will accelerate the decomposition of woody materials, autumn leaves, and other 'browns'.

  • STRAW
    Dry straw is a good material for helping to keep a compost pile aerated, because it tends to create lots of passageways for air to get into the pile. Be sure to wet the straw, as it is very slow to decompose otherwise. Straw is definitely a 'brown' and also requires mixture with 'greens' to break down quickly. Many stables use straw as a bedding material for horses -- straw that has undergone this treatment is mixed in with horse manure and breaks down more quickly.

  • WEEDS AND OTHER GARDEN WASTES
    Many types of weeds and old garden plants can be composted. Avoid weeds that have begun to go to seed, as seeds may survive all but the hottest compost piles. Some types of weeds are 'pernicious weeds' and will resprout in the compost pile -- avoid using these unless they are thoroughly dead. Green weeds are a 'green', while dead brown weeds are a 'brown'.

  • WOOD CHIPS AND SAWDUST
    Wood products belong in the 'browns' category, because they are fairly low in nitrogen. Some sawdusts, especially from broadleaved/deciduous tress, will break down quickly in an active compost pile. Others, especially from coniferous trees, will take longer to decay. Stir sawdust thoroughly into the pile or use very thin layers. Coarse wood chips will very slowly decay, and are probably better used as mulch unless you have lots of time to wait. Be sure not to compost chips or sawdust from any sort of chemically-treated wood -- you could be adding toxics like arsenic to your pile if you do.

As with any other process, there is a "no-no" list for home composting as well. Whether because of toxins, plant or human diseases, or weed troubles, there are some things that shouldn't be added to compost piles. Avoid composting the following materials:

  • CHEMICALLY-TREATED WOOD PRODUCTS
    Sawdust is often available from constructions sites, friends, or your own building projects. If you are considering composting sawdust, be sure of the origin of the sawdust. Sawdust from chemically-treated wood products can be bad stuff to compost. For example, take pressure-treated wood (sometimes called CCA), which usually has a greenish tint to it (I have also seen it in other colors). It contains arsenic, a highly toxic element, as well as chromium and copper. There is evidence to suggest that arsenic is leached into the soil from these products when they are used to make compost bins or raised beds, so composting the sawdust would certainly be a mistake. Avoid other chemically-treated wood products and sawdust as well, such as wood treated with creosote or 'penta' preservative.

  • DISEASED PLANTS
    Many plant disease organisms are killed by consistent hot composting, but it's difficult to make sure that every speck of the diseased material gets fully composted. It's best not to compost diseased plant material at all, to avoid reinfecting next year's garden.

  • HUMAN WASTES
    Human feces can contain disease organisms that will make people very sick. Composting human feces safely requires that the compost pile reach high (thermophilic) temperatures over a period of time. It isn't necessarily that difficult to reach these temperatures in a home compost pile, but the potential health costs of improper composting are high. Composting of human feces is, therefore, not recommended.

  • MEAT, BONES, AND FATTY FOOD WASTES
    These materials are very attractive to pests (in an urban setting, this could mean rats). In addition, fatty food wastes can be very slow to break down, because the fat can exclude the air that composting microbes need to do their work.

  • PERNICIOUS WEEDS
    Morning glory/bindweed, sheep sorrel, ivy, several kinds of grasses, and some other plants can resprout from their roots and/or stems in the compost pile. Just when you thought you had them all chopped up, you'd actually helped them to multiply! Don't compost these weeds unless they are completely dead and dry (you may want to leave them in a sunny place for a couple of weeks before composting). Remember also that composting weeds that have gone to seed will create weeds in next year's garden, unless a very hot pile temperature can be maintained to kill the seeds.

  • PET WASTES
    Dog and cat feces may carry diseases that can infect humans. It is best NEVER to use them in compost piles. Some people do bury them 8" deep in the soil, but ONLY in areas where food crops are never grown.

Now that you know what you should and should not add to your compost pile, you might be wondering how you can tell when your compost is ready to use. Finished compost is dark in color and has an earthy smell (like the smell of soil). Usually, it's difficult to recognize any of the original ingredients, although bits of hard-to-decompose materials (such as straw) sometimes can be seen. There is no single point at which compost is finished -- it's a bit more subjective than that. For many outdoor garden applications, for instance, it can be fine to use compost that still has a few recognizable bits of leaves or straw -- it will finish rotting in the soil. If you plan to use compost in seed-starting mixes, though, you're best off having a well-finished compost, because seedling roots may be attacked by decomposer microbes if the roots contact unfinished compost.

Compost does several things to benefit soil that synthetic fertilizers cannot do. First, it adds organic matter, which improves the way water interacts with the soil. In sandy soils, compost acts as a sponge to help retain water in the soil that would otherwise drain down below the reach of plant roots (in this way, it protects plants against drought). In clay soils, compost helps to add porosity (tiny holes and passageways) to the soil, making it drain more quickly so that it doesn't stay waterlogged and doesn't dry out into a bricklike substance. Compost also inoculates the soil with vast numbers of beneficial microbes (bacteria, fungi, etc.) and the habitat that the microbes need to live. These microbes are able to extract nutrients from the mineral part of the soil and eventually pass the nutrients on to plants.

Once your compost is finished, you can mix it directly with your garden or houseplant soils, use it as a potting mix, dilute it with water and use it as a perfect water compound or even use it as a dark, earthy mulch for flower beds, shrubs and bushes. Trust me, your plants will thank you for it!

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