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Recycling is good for the environment. Composting yard waste, such as leaves and spent plants, recycles them into humus or “black gold” as named by gardeners.This material is used as a soil amendment or mulch for plants. By following the easy tips, you can compost yard waste in the backyard.Composting is a controlled, natural, biological process where bacteria, fungi (microbes), and other organisms decompose organic materials. Compostable materials include leaves, grass clippings, pine needles, straw, and non-woody plant clippings such as weeds and vegetable plants.Kitchen wastes such as coffee grounds, washed eggshells, and vegetable scraps may be added. However, meat, bones, whole eggs, and dairy products should not be used since they may attract rodents and other animals.Woody materials such as branches, logs, and twigs may be used, but chip them into one-quarter inch or shorter pieces in order to make these materials break down faster.Do not use diseased plants from the flower or vegetable garden for composting if the compost will be returned to the garden. A small compost pile at home may not heat to high enough temperatures for a sufficient period of time to kill the disease organisms.Also, it is best to avoid composting weeds with many seeds, since the seeds may not be killed during composting in a home situation.Feces of pets and humans should not be included in the compost pile because diseases from these feces can be transmitted to humans.As materials are added in layers to the pile, include a thin layer of soil to serve as a source of microbes that will decompose the organic material. Purchasing a compost starter is not required.After gathering and layering the materials, four key factors — aeration, moisture, particle size, and carbon-to-nitrogen ratios are involved in successful composting.These factors are associated with keeping the microbes (bacteria and fungi) happy so they break down organic materials through a heating process. If any of these four factors are limited, the process of decomposition slows or stops.Aerate the compost pile by turning it with a garden fork or shovel. Aeration adds oxygen, which is essential for the microbes. Frequently turning the pile during the initial stages of decomposition increases the activity of the microbes, thus reducing the time and space required for composting. If the pile is turned infrequently, the composting process takes longer.Turning the pile also helps it reach a higher temperature. Heat, ideally between 90 and 140 degrees, helps destroy some weed seeds and diseases. In the backyard, the minimum size of the pile is 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet or 1 cubic yard, otherwise, the pile will not reach the appropriate temperature range.Check the interior temperature of the pile with a thermometer or with your hand. Ninety degrees F feels comfortably warm. One hundred forty degrees is too hot to touch for more than ten seconds.Moisture is required for microbial activity. Water the layers as you add them to the pile.The pile has the right amount of moisture if about two drops of water come from squeezing a handful of the compost pile. Add water while turning the pile if it is dry. Cover the pile with a tarp to prevent it from becoming too wet during heavy rain events.If the pile is too wet, turn the pile frequently or add more organic material. Excessive moisture replaces air spaces causing a lack of oxygen in the pile.Another point to remember is that the smaller the particle size in the pile, the faster the material will turn into compost. Smaller particles have a larger surface area that microbes can attack. Shredding materials before adding them to the compost pile also reduces the initial volume of the pile.In a compost pile, the ideal carbon to nitrogen ratio (C:N) is 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen (30:1). Carbon serves as an energy source for the microbes while nitrogen is required for growth. Materials such as straw and woody material are high in carbon; grass clippings are high in nitrogen. An ideal C:N ratio is achieved by mixing high nitrogen material with high carbon materials.If the amount of nitrogen in your pile is low, you can add blood meal as an organic source of nitrogen or a fertilizer with a high nitrogen content.Rabbit or chicken manure can be added as a nitrogen source, but there is a greater chance of an objectionable odor coming from the pile with these manures.Lime does not have to be added to the pile. Actually, the addition of lime to the pile converts ammonium nitrogen to ammonia gas, which leads to the loss of nitrogen. Finished compost usually is slightly alkaline without the addition of lime.Finished compost has an earthy smell and looks like dark-colored soil. It can be produced in three months or more, depending on the amount of time spent meeting the needs of the bacteria and fungi that break down the organic materials.For more information about composting, contact the Daviess County Cooperative Extension Service at 270-685-8480 or [email protected]’s Tip of the WeekCollect dry leaves in the fall in garbage bags and store them in a dry location. In the spring when grass clippings are abundant, the leaves serve as a carbon source to add to the grass clippings from a herbicide-free yard as a nitrogen source to start a compost pile.Annette Meyer Heisdorffer, PhD, is the horticulture extension agent with the Daviess County Extension Office. She can be reached by calling 270-685-8480.
Annette Meyer Heisdorffer, PhD, is the horticulture extension agent with the Daviess County Extension Office. She can be reached by calling 270-685-8480.
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