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Composting in the Yard

Backyard Conservation Tip Sheet

As more cities and local communities place restrictions on disposal of yard wastes, composting becomes an excellent option for many homeowners. If you have always thought that composting was too much work or too smelly, maybe it is time to reconsider this backyard conservation practice!

You do not need special equipment to start a compost pile. Simply piling yard debris in a heap on the ground will work, but it will be a slow process. This is referred to as cold composting. No specific amount of material is needed to start the compost heap, and you can add to the pile at anytime. You can run a lawnmower over small piles of weeds and clippings to help shred them. Do not use a lawnmower to shred woody materials! While cold composting is the simplest method, it also is the slowest. Some studies have shown that because of the low temperatures achieved during decomposition, weed seeds and disease causing organisms may not be destroyed.

Hot composting causes the material to decompose faster. It also has the benefits of destroying many weed seeds and disease organisms. For hot composting, a pile with minimum dimensions of 3 x 3 x 3 is needed for efficient heating. Moisture and aeration are required.

Many styles of compost bins are on the market that will help contain the pile and hasten the process. Some resemble garbage cans. The new material is placed in the top and the finished compost can be scooped out of the bottom. Other bins are spherical and as you roll the bin, the compost is mixed and aerated. You can build a simple bin. A hoop of wire mesh will contain the waste and allow air to enter from all sides. Wooden bins also can be built--numerous plans are available from nurseries or garden centers. Check on local regulations before building a compost bin. Some urban areas require rodent proof bins.

  1. Here are some tips for successful composting:
  2. Choose a level, well-drained site, preferably near your garden.
  3. For hot composting, mix together or alternate layers of green materials such as grass clippings and brown materials such as dead leaves. Green materials provide a source of nitrogen while leaves provide carbon for the decomposing organisms.
  4. A small amount of nitrogen fertilizer or barnyard manure can be added if needed to supply nitrogen.
  5. Keep the pile moist, but not wet. Soggy piles encourage the growth of organisms that can survive without oxygen and cause unpleasant odors.
  6. Provide aeration either by turning the pile or by using bins that allow air to enter the pile.
  7. Do not compost pet manure that can contain diseases or meat scraps that can attract unwanted insects or wildlife.
  8. Be patient. Composting is not an exact science. The rate of decomposition will vary depending on weather conditions and materials composted. Finished compost will be pleasant smelling and crumbly to the touch. It can be used in any garden and will provide nutrients for plants and help improve the structure of the soil.

For more information on composting and other Backyard Conservation practices, contact your local conservation district or the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Or call 1-888-LANDCARE (toll free) for a free colorful Backyard Conservation booklet and tip sheets.

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