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Compost an alternative for leaf disposal

Deborah Prescott | Daily Press Cheryl Duchaine is shown at compost bins Friday located at Escanaba’s Community Garden. The Community Garden property in Escanaba has a three bin system, providing a continuous supply of compost.

ESCANABA — During fall in the U.P., residents get to enjoy the bright reds, oranges and yellows of leaves splashed across the landscape. But that’s not where the story ends. After a leaf falls to the ground, it provides nutrients for lawns, covers gardens before the snow flies, and decays, creating compost for the next gardening season.

Leaves naturally decay over time, but if collected and combined with the right materials, they turn into “black gold”, organic fertilizer used in gardens and landscaping. Composting is an easy way to add nutrition back into the yard and recycle garden and yard waste.

“Decomposition takes place through the work of microscopic organisms including fungi and bacteria, and larger organisms like earthworms, sow bugs, millipedes and many more,” said MSU Extension Consumer Horticulture Educator Rebecca Krans. “Composting is a smart gardening practice because it recycles and reuses valuable nutrients through organic matter returned to the garden.”

To start a compost, first pick an area to place it, close to a water source, above ground so organisms can do their work and not on concrete or a hard surface. It should be in a shaded area so it doesn’t dry out quickly. Keep your neighbor in mind, don’t block views, or create an odor, and check local regulations.

An ideal compost size is three to five cubic feet, according to Krans. The materials can be contained in a bin. Compost bins can be purchased, or built out of pallets or wire fencing. A compost can be free standing, one bin, or in a three-bin system.

“If you would like to have a continuous supply of compost, consider a three bin system,” said Krans. “Once one bin is full and decomposing, you can work on filling another.”

There are two types of composting according to Krans — cold and hot.

“The amount of time and effort you’d like to spend recycling your garden waste will help you choose whether to use a cold or hot composting method,” said Krans.

The cold method is slower and easier. Yard and kitchen scraps are piled as they become available and nature takes its course. Occasionally mix the materials and the compost will be ready to use in the spring.

The hot method can take six to eight weeks. Pile material no wider than a four by four area on level ground for drainage. One side should be easy to access to turn the compost materials. Layer carbon materials, nitrogen materials, soil, and water repeatedly until the four by four area is full.

Composting requires brown (carbon) and green (nitrogen) materials, dead leaves, twigs, untreated sawdust, coffee filters, shredded pieces of paper, cardboard, grass clippings, fruit and vegetable scraps, hair, lint, and coffee grounds. Larger materials should be chopped into smaller sizes. Do not add any plastic, metal, or chemically treated materials.

“To be successful, you will need to provide the microorganisms in the pile with the materials they require to complete the process of decomposition, food, water, proper temperature, and oxygen,” said Krans.

Mix carbon and nitrogen materials in a two to one or three to one ratio. The compost should not have an oder, but an earthy smell. When a pile is actively decomposing a handful should have the consistency of a wet sponge, only a few drops of water should be squeezed out.

“By spring the compost should be good soil, full of nutrients,” said Krans. “I suggest a three inch layer mulch around herbs and annuals and a six inch layer around perennials, trees and shrubs. Mulch around your veggies too.”

To keep pests disinterested do not add baked goods, cooking oil, meat and milk products, rice and walnuts. Cooking oil can change the moisture balance, rice can create unwanted bacteria, and walnuts contain juglone, a natural sromatic compound toxic to some plants. Diseased plants should not go into a compost pile, the plant can ruin the entire compost by transferring the disease to other plants planted in the compost. Stubborn plants should not be added to the compost, as they may overtake wanted plants. Heavily coated paper, magazines, catalogs, wrapping paper and printing chemicals are not wanted. There is too much of a health risk to add feces, or items soiled in human fluids, and do not add any wood chips or sawdust unless it is untreated.

MSU Extension Forester/Biologist Bill Cook noted maple leaves are acidic in nature.

“Note that maple leaves are quite acidic. Basswood leaves might be the best for many of the acidic soils that we have around here,” said Cook.

Vermicomposting is adding red wiggler earthworms to organic material in a smaller container, eight to 16 inches deep. In the container is layered dirt, newspaper and leaves. The container should have small holes at the bottom for ventilation and drainage. As earthworms process materials in the bin eventually the materials are replaced with nutritious excrement, or castings.

If composting does not interest you there are a few other ways to add nourishment to your yard. Mowing leaves on the lawn will provide nourishment into the soil. Protect perennials by covering them with shredded leaves, or till leaves into garden soil. Bagged dry leaves can be used for insulation and decorating, or jump into a pile.

West of the Delta Solid Waste Management Authority (DSWMA) entrance, 5701 19th Ave. North, is a site to drop off grass clippings and leaves.

“The public can drop off grass and leaves with no woody stem attached, 24/7 at the compost pile.” said DSWMA Manager Don Pyle. “Bush material, that is material with bark, anything with a woody stem, can be dropped off during normal operating hours. Anything three inches or smaller in diameter, or shorter than six feet long in length we will take in. There is no fee for the general public to get rid of leaves and grass, but for commercial companies, like landscapers, there is an annual fee of $250.”

The DSWMA does not have the facilities at this time to process compost for residents to use, so they cannot allow anyone to haul compost away.

“Any licensed compost facility in Michigan must have a “screener” to process the compost, which we do not have,” said Pyle.

For more information visit the DSWMA website at www.dswma.org, or call 906-786-9056.

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