Carol Pinnell-Alison, Thornton, Amy
Horticulture Agent - Franklin and Richland Parishes
We have had several cold snaps which means the leaves have fallen. One way to make use of all these leaves is to compost them. Compost can be made out of most any plant material which we usually think of as grass clippings, leaves, kitchen vegetable waste and even shredded paper. All of these things are considered organic materials. Naturally occurring microorganisms (fungi and bacteria) in the soil are responsible for breaking down organic matter into the dark, crumbly material we call compost.
When we compost, we speed up the natural process of breaking down the carbon in the organic matter.
To get started in backyard composting you need to decide how much time, effort and expense you want to put into composting. The basic components of composting are location, plant materials, water, soil from your yard and some nitrogen.
Pile of leaves to be used for composting.
The site could be as simple as a location where you can pile up the plant material where you can conveniently periodically turn the pile and add some nitrogen and some water when conditions are dry. More efficient and faster composting occurs in some sort of bin. These bins can be homemade or bought from a commercial source. Whether homemade or bought, the bins will need to have air circulation. Materials used can be wire, wood, concrete blocks or bricks. You can have a single bin or have several bins where you can transfer the material as it finishes the different stages of composting.
Once you have a location and if using the pile or bin method, it is time to add plant material. To get started, add material in layers: Plant material, some soil which contains the microorganisms, and then more plant material. Adding a form of nitrogen will help the microorganisms break down the carbon. If the plant material is dry, adding some water is also helpful. You do not want your composting material to be too wet. If you have green grass clippings to add to the compost the extra nitrogen will not be needed since the green grass is a good source of nitrogen.
The heat generated from the microorganisms decomposing the organic materials may reach 140 to 160 degrees F in the center of the material. This temperature kills some weed seeds and disease organisms. To get complete composting and sterilization turning the material is needed. Composting may take two to nine months, depending on the material being composted.
You know your compost is ready for use when it is dark and crumbly. Compost is a good soil amendment or mulch. Compost helps with soil aeration, root penetration, water infiltration and it reduces crusting of the soil surface. Fresh compost will have some nutrients but its real benefit is improving soil characteristics. Additional fertilizer is usually needed for plant growth.