THE HOW DO GARDENER: See garden-rich results from composting

By RICK BICKLING

A three-bin compost bin. (Photo by Rick Bickling)

Composting is the process of decomposition of grass clippings, leaves, and other organic matter that occurs continuously in nature and results in an organic nutrient rich, soil like material. As trees drop leaves, grasses, plants and trees die, they decompose over time and return their nutrients to the soil as compost.

Composting reduces yard waste entering landfills. Each year hundreds of millions of tons of grass clippings, leaves, weeds, organic debris, and other yard waste enters landfills. This makes up about 20 percent of the total volume of all material entering landfills. The cost to collect and dispose of this waste is nearly $1 billion a year.

Composting saves you money by reducing the need for store bought fertilizer. Compost is free. Adding compost to soil helps reduce your watering needs by helping the soil retain water.

Optimally, compost should consist of four basic components; green material, brown material, water, and air. Green material adds nitrogen to the compost. Several green material sources for your compost are grass clippings, fruit and vegetable scraps and trimmings, coffee grounds, used tea bags, and cow, horse, or poultry manure.

Brown material adds carbon to the compost. Sources include dry brown leaves, shredded newspaper, wood chips, and sawdust. Compost forms best when it is kept at a constant moisture level, similar to a damp sponge, not soaking wet. Air allows aerobic composting to occur rapidly, and with little or no foul odors. About 30 percent of the total initial volume of your compost pile should be air space.

A 50:50 ratio of green to brown material by volume will provide the best results. By mixing, or turning, your compost pile regularly, the proper blend of the four components of compost will be maintained. To speed up the composting process, mix your compost pile more often. Mixing your compost allows air to enter into the pile. If the pile has become too dry, add more water and mix it in.

Be sure to NEVER place anything containing fats or oils, such as meat scraps or baked goods, in your compost. Do not place dog or cat waste, or diseased plants in your compost pile.

Microorganisms that contribute to the composting process will generate a substantial amount of heat in a compost pile that has the proper mix of ingredients and that is large enough, at least 1 cubic yard. The optimum internal temperature is right around 150 degrees. These temperatures are critical for the destruction of pathogens and weed seeds.

Patty Hoenigman, author and Texas Master Composter, describes six ways to compost, ranging from easy but slow to produce, to more involved but producing compost more quickly. Use a mulching lawn mower. Dig a hole and bury kitchen scraps. Make a trough, bury kitchen scraps and cover them up as you go.

Passive Composting – this can be used to produce a small amount of compost that will be done in four to six months. Add leaves to a bin, add food scraps, and cover with more leaves. Add water and mix once a week.

Heap or Pile – make a compost pile, away from the house. Add brown and green material as they become available and just let the pile sit. It will take about a year before usable compost will be available at the bottom of the pile.

Active Composting – This method requires a minimum of 1 cubic yard of material to start with ideally in a 3-foot by 3-foot by 3-foot bin. Soak leaves overnight and then alternate 2-inch deep layers of brown and green material in the bin. Let it sit for three days to allow the internal temperature to peek. Next, turn the pile completely, being sure to add water to any dry areas, every day for 11 days. Let the pile sit undisturbed for two more weeks to cure.

You will then have a complete batch of compost ready to use in just four weeks. The final volume of compost will be about one-third of the starting volume of the pile.

Start composting today! It doesn’t matter if it’s 105 or 35 degrees outside. You can build a compost bin out of wood, cinder blocks, or chicken wire, or just make a pile or small hole. Once you see the rich results of composting on your garden, you’ll be glad you did.

Rick Bickling is a certified Master Gardener in Williamson County. He has been designing, planting and maintaining landscapes and gardens for more than 30 years. Visit www.howdogardener.com or reach Rick by email at howdogardener@LHIndependent.com.