Making Good Use of Landscape Debris

Composting - photo by V. Jedlicka

Making Good Use of Landscape Debris

submitted by Sarah Browning, Nebraska Extension Educator

Beginning in late summer, most gardeners have an abundance of landscape waste; whether it's falling tree leaves, foliage and branches from pruning trees and shrubs, or plant waste from ornamental or vegetable gardens. Why not take advantage of these great organic materials, instead of piling them into bags and hauling them off to the landfill? You can easily turn them into nutrient-rich compost to use in your gardens next year. Composting is a great way to recycle garden waste and reduce the money spent on trash disposal and store-bought fertilizer.

Benefits and Components of Compost

Compost is a mixture of decomposed plant materials and other organic waste that has many benefits for the home landscape. It improves the water holding capacity of sandy soils, improves the aeration of clay soils and provides plant nutrients. Decomposition can take one month to two years, depending on how actively the pile is managed.

What materials can be used in a compost pile? Yard waste like leaves, grass clippings and plant trimmings can be composted, as well as kitchen waste such as vegetable and fruit peelings, coffee grounds and egg shells. Branches and twigs larger than one-quarter inch in diameter should be put through a shredder or chipper to enable faster breakdown. Household items like newspaper and cardboard can also be composted.

What materials should not be added to a compost pile? Meat, bones, grease and dairy products should not be composted because they attract wildlife pests. Also, do not add heavily diseased plants or weeds with many seeds. Disease organisms, like fungal spores or bacteria, and weed seeds may not all be killed during the composting process. Meaning they would still be active in the finished compost and cause a problem for plants when the compost is added back to a vegetable garden or landscape bed.

Creating a Compost Pile

Compost piles can be made using a variety of structures, but the pile must be large enough to hold heat and small enough to admit air to its center. Ideally, each pile should be 3 to 5 feet tall and wide.

To build a compost pile, set 4 to 6 inches of chopped brush or coarse material over the soil. This allows air to circulate underneath the pile. Add a three to four inch layer of damp, low-carbon (green colored) organic material, such as grass clippings, on top. Follow this with a 4 to 6 inch layer of high-carbon (brown colored) organic material. Both of these layers should be damp, so add water if necessary. Finally, add a 1-inch layer of garden soil or finished compost. This last layer introduces the microorganisms needed to break down the organic matter. Mix these layers together. Then add more materials to the pile in additional layers.

For the quickest decomposition, remix the pile about once a week. Move materials previously on the top and sides of the pile to the center. Add water as needed to keep the pile damp. The temperature will quickly reach more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, but the pile will eventually cool off and decrease to about one-third of its original volume. The compost will be dark, crumbly and earthy smelling.

Passive compost piles can be allowed to sit undisturbed and will decompose slowly. Additional materials can be added to the top as needed. Completed compost may be removed from the bottom of the pile and used even if the rest of the pile is not completely decomposed.

For more information: Garden Compost.

This resource was added September 2015 and appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star Newspaper Sunday edition. For information on reproducing this article or using any photographs or graphics, read the Terms of Use statement

The information on this Web site is valid for residents of southeastern Nebraska. It may or may not apply in your area. If you live outside southeastern Nebraska, visit your local Extension office

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