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Compost is the result of a biological process that occurs when leaves, grass clippings, vegetable and fruit scraps, wood chips, straw and small twigs are combined, then allowed to break down into a crumbly, dark-brown humus material with soil-like texture.Yard waste is broken down by bacteria, fungi, microbes and insects. The microbes need water, air and food (your yard trimmings) to start and continue the break-down process.  Compost is one of nature's best mulches and soil amendments, that may be used in place of commercial fertilizers.

WHY COMPOST?

Compost saves time and money by providing an almost constant source of free fertilizer and soil conditioner. The organic materials in the compost help your plants grow by loosening the soil and allowing better root penetration. Compost increases microbial activity, creating a healthier environment for plant growth. The texture of compost improves moisture retention in your soil and can reduce your water bills. The balance of nutrients in compost help regulate the pH of your soil. Through regular use of compost you can drastically reduce or even eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, saving money and reducing the potential for contamination of our waterways and drinking water.

MAKING A COMPOST BIN

A good rule of composting is: keep it simple. You can simply rake your ingredients into a mound. Compost bins are not necessary to make good compost, but they can help.

Make a simple box- or circular-shaped enclosure using chicken wire, scrap wood, hardware cloth, wooden pallets, bricks or concrete blocks. Or purchase one of many prefabricated types. Be aware that any wood that is in contact with the compost will gradually deteriorate and become part of the compost! Barrel composters are commercially available in either metal or plastic, or you can make your own. If you use a barrel, be sure that it wasn't previously a container for a toxic material.

LAYERS IN A WORKING COMPOST BIN

Add leaves, grass clippings and kitchen scraps as they become available.

  1. Layer of soil, 1 inch deep.
  2. Grass clippings and leaves mixed with egg shells, tea bags and fruit and vegetable scraps, 2 inches deep.
  3. Bottom layer of twigs, woody brush, plant stalks, straw and leaves, 3-6 inches deep.

MISCELLANEOUS COMPOST TIPS

Commercially available "compost starters" or "activators" aren't necessary. Most veteran composters stay away from these products. Fertilizer isn't necessary to activate compost. Old compost, garden soil, blood meal and cow, horse and sheep manure are better choices. Try to garden organically.

The smaller the size of the materials you use, the faster they will compost. It makes sense that small twigs will break down faster than large twigs, but many people don't realize that the same holds true for leaves. If you run a lawn mower through a pile of leaves before adding them to your compost, you will see a quicker breakdown. This especially true for live oak leaves and many others with waxy surfaces. Use a chipper or shredder for larger woody material. Either rent one or go in with a neighbor to buy one. You don't need to add worms or bugs, they'll come naturally to let you know everything is working fine.

EASY COMPOST RECIPE

Find a well-draining spot out of direct sunlight. Start with a layer of coarse material, like twigs, straw and leaves. Add a layer of grass clippings and leaves, mixed with egg shells, coffee grounds, tea bags and fruit and vegetable scraps from your kitchen, along with water and soil or old compost. Always bury or cover food waste when it is added to a compost pile to decrease the likelihood of attracting rodents or flies. Add more leaves, grass clippings and kitchen scraps as they become available. Turn the mixture on a regular basis to provide spaces for air to circulate. Be sure it stays moist - but not soggy.

For best results try to build you pile so that it's at least three feet wide and three feet deep. If it's smaller, you'll still get compost, but it will take longer. Your compost will naturally heat up and decrease in volume as it breaks down.

WRONG INGREDIENTS FOR COMPOST

Avoid meat, fish, bones, dairy foods, oils, grease and fatty foods. These items can disrupt the decomposition that is part of composting. Perhaps even worse, they can cause odors and attract rodents. Avoid pet feces or used kitty litter. Although they may eventually break down in compost, they also harbor bacteria, germs, viruses and parasites. Use care with fireplace ashes. If you know you have burned only wood, your fireplace ashes can be added to your compost and will make it more alkaline. Fireplace ashes that contain burned paper or pressed logs should not go in your compost. Sawdust or chips from painted, treated or pressurized wood should not be composted. Chemicals used to preserve the wood can contaminate your compost and your garden. Avoid weeds that have gone to seed or weeds that spread by runners. Avoid diseased or insect-infested plants.

TROUBLESHOOTING TIPS

If the compost has a bad odor, it may be:

  1. Too wet. Turn it and add dry material.
  2. A function of inputs, like too much grass. Turn it and add leaves.
  3. Due to lack of air. Turn it.

If the center of the pile is dry, moisten materials while turning the pile. It should be moist but not soggy. If the compost is warm and damp in the middle but nowhere else, collect more material and mix the old ingredients into a new pile.  If the compost is damp and sweet-smelling but still will not heat up, mix in a nitrogen source like fresh manure or bloodmeal.

Flies are not welcome visitors to compost. Although the larval stages of many flies won't hurt and may actually speed the compost process, the adult flies are nuisances. The easiest prevention is to bury any food scraps you wish to compost. If you have fly problems, it's a good idea to keep a pile of leaves handy to top off your compost.

DON'T BAG IT PROGRAM

Leave it a lawn. The Texas Agricultural Extension Service's "Don't Bag It" program was designed to keep grass clippings out to landfills. Leaving grass clippings on the lawn returns valuable nutrients to the soil, reduces the need for fertilizer, reduces watering, saves space in your community landfill and is easier than bagging! The "Don't Bag It" program is a combination of common-sense watering, mowing and fertilizing. The frequency of watering and mowing will depend on the type of grass in your yard.

WHAT IS MULCH?

Mulch is any organic material - including wood chips, grass clippings, leaves and compost - that is spread over the surface of the soil. Mulching is one of the cheapest water conservation techniques known. A layer of mulch locks in moisture and reduces soil temperatures, reducing plants' need for water. Mulch keeps down weeds by blocking their sunlight. Mulch serves as an anti-freeze for plants in winter by helping maintain constant soil temperature.

HOW DO I USE MULCHES?

Grass clippings can be spread regularly in thin layers over gardens and flower beds. Grass can be mixed with leaves or wood chips and spread in a thicker layer. Avoid layers of grass more than one inch thick, for they can keep water from your plants. Leaves and wood chips can be spread as mulch up to several inches thick. They will gradually settle and decompose, enriching the soil. Leaves can be spread as they fall or bagged and stored for later use.