On Gardening: Turn trash into treasure in 2015

January 5, 2015

This pile of compost is ready to be incorporated into a new Louisiana iris bed.

As I was driving around the neighborhood recently it became quite apparent to me that a literal gold mine of soil amendments was being placed at the road side. I suppose it has always happened but with the advent of paper lawn refuse bags it is now much more apparent. The scene is surreal.

On the positive side our Chatham County, Ga., Public Works composts this waste and gives it back to the public; does your county? Those dozen or so bags of leaves at the street side have the potential of helping you start a compost pile that will pave the way to a great new azalea bed, cottage garden or tropical paradise.

My children grew up learning the phrase, "the key to the green thumb is how brown it gets first, in soil preparation." Compost, that dark crumbly organic material, is the key ingredient to the garden recipe. Incorporating organic matter helps loosen tight heavy soils so they will drain or improve sandy soilís ability to hold water and nutrients. You win no matter your soil type.

I remember well a Master Gardener friend in Ocean Springs, Miss., who took this to heart. The last time I was at his home I was as impressed by his compost bin as I was by his glorious gingers and firespikes blooming. This was the best compost setup I have ever seen in a home garden. It was a series of three bins holding different stages of decomposition.

The system was larger than most gardeners use because he could not stand to see what others were throwing away. He would drive the neighborhood, picking up their leaves, clippings and other organic treasures to place in his compost system.

Compost piles can reach temperatures of 150 degrees inside from the heat given off by the microorganisms. I love seeing large piles of composting on a crisp morning. They will be smoking as if they are cooking. Actually, they are cooking up something good for us to use in the landscape.

At home we can do the same thing on a smaller scale by layering leaves or grass clippings 3-8 inches tall, covering them with 2-3 inches of top soil, and repeating the layers. The grass clippings provide nitrogen that aids in decomposition. Itís not a bad idea to add a half cup of ammonium nitrate per 8 bushels of leaves.

You may be worried that compost piles will stink, but under proper conditions they do not have an unpleasant odor. Keep the pile moist, not soggy, and well aired for good microbial growth, good heating and decomposition. Lack of moisture and air will reduce microbial activity. Too much moisture may cause undesirable decomposition, which can lead to foul odor.

With proper nitrogen and turning of grass clippings, the process can take as little as 10 to 12 weeks. Leaves take a little longer, and larger pieces of plant material, such as wood chips or limbs, may take six months to a year. You will be amazed at the potential of bark to turn into to organic treasure.

You donít have to have big bins; let the size fit your yard. One of my favorite methods of building a compost bin is to use discarded wood pallets. You can easily make a square bin from four pallets by wiring the corners together.

In the South we are still raking leaves and pine straw, which led me to the reason some of our streets are lined with paper bags. But even if yours are already gone, spring will be coming soon and grass clippings will either become your trash or treasure. I cast my vote for treasure, for "Going Green in 2015."



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