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How Does Your Garden Grow? Dealing with yard waste

Published: Saturday, June 15, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

Mountains of leaves in the fall! Bag after bag of grass clippings! Old, used potting soil. What to do with all that yard waste? It’s a problem. Or is it? Consider turning all those piles of yard waste into nutrient-rich compost right in your back yard.

Composting is the natural biological process of breaking down organic material into a humus-like substance we call compost. Micro-organisms, primarily bacteria and fungi, do most of the work in the decomposition process, but there are other organisms that help as well.

When incorporated into the soil, compost dramatically improves the health and productivity of the soil. It’s nature’s way of recycling plant material.

Your backyard composting operation can be as simple as establishing a compost pile in a back corner of your lot. Or depending on your budget and energy level, you may choose to invest in a more permanent compost structure such as compost bins constructed of weather-resistant material. Or there are many types of barrel-turning compost systems on the market. The choices are almost endless.

The important point is composting just makes good gardening sense. It’s environmentally sound. It saves a lot of time and hassle in dealing with yard waste. And the end product, compost, dramatically improves the health of your garden soil when incorporated as a soil amendment.

What should you put in your compost pile? Research at the University of Illinois and other research institutions demonstrate that a combination of materials, some high in carbon (generally brown) and some higher in nitrogen (generally green), enhances the bio-degradation process. Some typical yard waste materials to consider for your compost pile include: grass clippings, garden waste (probably best to avoid weeds with seed heads), leaves, fruit and vegetable scraps, crushed egg shells, used potting soil, and many other organic materials. Experienced composters often incorporate layers of garden soil or previously composted compost into the compost pile to accelerate the bio-degradation process. Livestock manure also works well as an accelerant.

Some of the materials to avoid in your compost pile include: meat, cooked food, cat litter, pet and human excrement, dairy products, charcoal, wood ashes, fish scraps, peanut butter, bones and tree limbs.

Another tip to speed up the composting process is to keep the pile aerated by occasionally turning the material with a garden fork. Some innovative composters have devised other methods to enhance aeration such as installing perforated plastic drain tile in the compost pile.

The important thing to remember is all organic matter eventually decomposes. Your backyard composting project simply speeds up the process.

So why not jump into the backyard composting game and put all those piles of yard waste to good use? It’s fun. It’s good exercise. It’s a very green, environmentally sound gardening practice that turns yard waste into a nutrient-rich soil amendment.

• Master Gardeners are available to answer your questions from 9 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday at the University of Illinois Extension DeKalb County office located in the Farm Bureau Center for Agriculture, 1360 W. Prairie Drive in Sycamore. Call 815-758-8194 or email DeKalb_mg@extension.uiuc.edu. Walk-ins are welcome.

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