Composting is a wonderful way to turn yard trash into a landscaping treasure. Composting doesn’t need to be difficult. It can be as simple as taking fallen leaves and using them in the landscape beds, instead of purchasing mulch. Over time, the leaves will decompose resulting in organic matter that is full of nutrients and beneficial in maintaining healthy plants.
Compost offers many benefits for your lawn and garden.
Compost helps condition sandy soils, helping them retain moisture and plant nutrients, and compost helps improve drainage in clay soils.
Compost supports beneficial living soil organisms, like worms.
And, a lesser-known benefit may be the reduction of a soil-borne fungal infection, called take-all root rot in turf grass.
Composting systems can be divided into three categories: stationary bin, tumbling bin, and the no bin or heap-method.
The heap method has no cost, as no equipment is needed. Compostable materials are simply placed into a heap with material added, as it accumulates.
Stationary bins can be as simple as recycled wooden pallets wired together to create a bin, or they can be heavy gauge wire mesh, plastic, or even made from cement blocks. With some stationary bin systems, you can add a second or even a third bin next to the first bin to transform the single bin into a multi-bin system which makes turning the decomposing organic matter easier. Some offer lids and/or fine wire mesh to keep out animals.
A food-grade 55-gallon barrel with air holes made along the sides of the drum and a stand with a pipe that fits into the center of the barrel makes a great tumbling bin. The barrel can be tipped end-over-end easily, which aerates the material, speeding up the decomposition process.
There are many ready-made tumbling bins.
Which type is better? Each type has pros and cons. Some tumbling bins are costly, many stationary bins have a fairly limited capacity, and other bins, such as those made from cement block, are permanent fixtures in your landscape.
What can be composted?
It may be easier to say what cannot be composted: no meat, grease, bones, diseased plants or weedy plants that have seeds/fruits, pet or human waste.
Most anything that is plant-based can be composted. For example leaves, grass clippings, vegetable scraps, coffee grounds (including the paper filter), sawdust from nontreated wood, and even newspapers can be composted.
Particle size plays a role in how quickly something will decompose, so some items will decompose more quickly than others.
Very small particles, like sawdust, will break down more slowly, due to packing, which slows oxygen moving between particles.
Oxygen is essential for the microbes to survive and decompose organic matter. If the particle size is large, like a tree branch, corn stalks, etc., it will take the microbes a long time to break down the material.
Also, there is something called the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, known as the C to N ratio. This might sound technical, but it’s really not.
Carbon materials are also called “browns” and are usually woody by nature and take more time to decompose.
“Browns” include fallen leaves, woodchips, straw, sawdust from nontreated wood, and newspapers. Items high in nitrogen, also known as “greens,” help speed the decomposition of high carbon “brown” items.
“Greens” include untreated grass clippings, animal manure (i.e. horse, rabbit), vegetable scrapes, egg shells, citrus and coffee grounds.
Mixing “brown” items and “green” items will speed the decomposition process.
While mixing, add water if the items are dry; decomposition occurs more quickly if the items are just barely moist, but not wet. You may need to add water to your pile from time to time to keep it moist. During heavy rains, you might want to cover the bin/pile so your compost doesn’t become soggy.
How often should you turn the pile?
The more frequently you turn it and the hotter you keep the composting materials, the faster the breakdown of the material.
“Hot-composting” methods require frequent attention to the compost pile. The microbes in the compost will naturally cause the temperature to rise. The pile should be turned when the temperature reaches 140 degrees. Special compost thermometers can be purchased at garden centers and on the Internet.
Should the pile cool down to 100 degrees, it should be turned to encourage reheating or new compostable materials added to restart the heating of the compost pile.
Hot-composting methods can destroy most disease causing organisms and weed seeds. Some people will take a “less is more” approach to composting. This is a method where the items to be composted are placed into a bin or in a heap and left to decompose on their own without turning or paying much attention to the pile.
This “cold-composting” method takes time, typically requiring two or three years for the compost to fully decompose. While cold composting is easier, you are more likely to get insects and pests in your compost.
A couple of final tips: Place your bin in a location that is easy to access, and consider the shade for your comfort when you turn the compost or need to load it into a wheelbarrow for use in your landscape.
Also, you should check your homeowner’s association (HOA) rules. As long as you follow the rules of your HOA, most will allow a compost unit in the backyard.
Jim Moll is with the University of Florida/IFAS Pasco County Extension Office and is the Florida Friendly LandscapingTM Program coordinator, funded by Tampa Bay Water. For more information, call (352) 518-0470, and check for upcoming classes and workshops at http://pasco.ifas.ufl.edu/events_calendar.shtml. To learn more about composting go to http://sarasota.ifas.ufl.edu/compost-info/.
Published May 13, 2015