Compost helps the environment

Published 12:44 am Friday, April 14, 2006

By By Buck Farrior
Earth Day will be celebrated on April 22. There will be rallies, ceremonies, and cleanup campaigns. However, there are some fundamental things that we as citizens can do to improve the environment. Specifically, I am referring to changing how we dispose of our waste. Most homeowner care for their lawn and some even have gardens. These activities generate waste. Surprisingly, the waste generated from these activities is extensive. Yard wastes, such as leaves, grass clippings, brush, and tree prunings, account for nearly 20 percent of all garbage generated in the United States each year (more than 31 million tons). During peak months (primarily summer and fall), yard wastes can represent as much as 50 percent of municipal solid waste. In many communities and states, new laws have banned yard wastes from landfills. The most common solution offered for this problem is composting.
Homeowners can significantly reduce the amount of waste they send to the landfill by composting. The resulting product can be used to improve the nutrient and water holding capacity of soil, as well as, the drainage and aeration of soils. Composting is a process that happens naturally and is often referred to as rotting. The trick is to speed the process and make it aesthetically acceptable. The speed of the reaction is regulated by the size of the particles being composted, and the balance of air, water, nitrogen, and temperature. Gardeners easily learn to make compost when they understand the relationship among these factors.
One of the major limiting factors relates to particle size. Whereas leaves and grass clippings can be easily composted with little or no processing, limbs, especially larger limbs, need to be ground before they are added to the compost pile for at least two reasons. (1) The grinding and resulting reduction in particle size exposed more of the woody surface to moisture and microbial action. (2) The ground particles are easier to handle with a shovel. Moving the material with a shovel is important because the piled yard waste must be turned periodically to assure that the pile is properly aerated. If there are sticks and branches in the mix, it is very difficult to turn the compost pile. Gardeners should either plan on grinding limbs or limiting the materials they compost to leaves and clippings.
In addition to reducing particle size and turning the compost pile periodically, it is important to understand that woody materials need to be mixed with more succulent materials to speed the digestion process. This is typically called the carbon nitrogen ratio. The lack of green or succulent material can be off set by the addition of fertilizer materials containing nitrogen. The woody materials should be placed in alternating layers with the succulent material, and supplemental fertilizers if necessary. You can add most any plant material to the compost pile. These include fruit scraps, egg shells, and coffee grounds. However, meat scraps, bones, and fats should not be added to the compost pile because they tend to attract unwanted animal and insect pests.
You can help to improve the environment simply by piling your lawn clippings, leaves and ground prunings into a compost pile. If you do it poorly, the only consequence is that the process may take longer than you had hoped, or it may not be pretty. However if you persist, you will get better at the process and in addition to helping the environment, you will have a useful product that will help your garden grow.
For more guidance on the construction of a compost bin call the County Extension office at 867-7760 or go to for a home composting guide.
Buck Farrior is coordinator of the Escambia County, Ala. Extension Agency.

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