Composting helps garden, environment

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— Americans dispose of nearly a ton of waste per capita annually. But landfill space can be saved by recycling kitchen and yard waste into rich, dark compost for personal use. Even in Routt County, with a short growing season, gardeners can successfully create compost.
Items often disposed of grass clippings, leaves, pine needles, table scraps, newspapers can be composted for later use in flower beds and gardens. It is estimated that composting can reduce yard waste by up to 75 percent and reduce as much as 18 percent of household solid waste that is sent to landfills. Composting is earth-friendly and it can help improve gardening results.
Adding compost improves the drainage and aeration of soil. Compost retains moisture and releases fertilizing nutrients slowly while increasing the activity of earthworms and other organisms that are beneficial to plant growth.
To make compost, alternate small pieces of different types of "green" and "brown" waste material in layers of approximately seven inches. Examples of green waste, which is needed for nitrogen, include weeds, fruit and vegetable scraps, green leaves, coffee grounds and tea bags and twigs. Composters should use caution when adding layers of extremely fine green material, such as grass clippings, since it can mat and prevent air and water movement through the layers.
Brown waste, which is needed for carbon, includes dry and dead materials such as straw, dried weeds, newspapers, wood chips or sawdust. Wood materials treated with preservatives and clippings from grass treated with chemicals should never be added to compost piles.
At the Yampa River Botanic Park, supervisor Gayle Noonan maintains several compost piles and recommends, for a manageable size, a compost heap that is between 3 and 5 square feet.
Heaps can be as simple as a pile on the ground, or a fenced structure that allows air through, or even a specially designed compost bin available at gardening centers.
Noonan does not recommend using meat or dairy products. She also warns against using animal wastes which could cause odors and attract animals. She advises against using fresh manure, in particular, due to concerns about new strains of E.coli and other bacteria that cause human illness.
Proper care is essential to successful composting. Piles should be mixed several times monthly to add oxygen and keep the temperature uniform throughout the materials. Because Steamboat summers are relatively dry, water may need to be sprinkled occasionally on the compost layers. The compost pile should be moist, but not soggy throughout. In the winter, compost piles are dormant and do not require regular care.
Composting speeds up natural decomposition. The green and brown materials are converted into compost by the action of bacteria and fungi which eat the organic matter and generate heat and carbon dioxide.
If the compost is properly mixed and maintained, the compost will reach its final stage in one to two months under optimum summer conditions. The compost is ready when the pile has shrunk to about half of its original size and has a nice earthy smell.
Compost can be used as a soil amendment or a mulch. "Compost tea," the liquid from a settled mix of half compost/half water, can be used as a boost for house plants, seedlings and transplants.
Consider composting. It's good for the garden and for the community.


Deb Babcock is a Routt County resident and a Master Gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension office in Routt County. Questions and topic suggestions for this column may be submitted directly to the CSU Cooperative Extension office at 879-0825 or you may e-mail your comments to: gardeners@co.routt.co.us

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