“Nature demands a gift for every gift it gives, so what we have to keep doing, is returning [leaves and compost materials] back into the soil, then we’re continuously giving the gifts to nature, because we have a return cycle.” Geoff Lawton – Permaculture Designer and Teacher
Leaves are Falling, and You Know What That Means . . . Compost!
Fall is right behind Spring for my favorite season of the year. The first nip in the air, the color in the trees, and the feelings the holidays bring are comforting to the soul. When the leaves begin to fall, in addition to nip, color, and holiday feelings, we can add another word to your seasonal lexicon: Compost. As a newly minted Master Gardener (Intern), I have come to appreciate nature’s fall bounty of leaves. Instead of dreading the rake, I see nourishment for the garden and the benefits from our bounty of free fertilizer and mulch. Except when the leaves fall in my pool; then, I curse them.
What exactly is Composting? Composting has an interesting etymology. Originally, the word compost comes from Latin, compositus, the past participle of componere or “to put together” and from com “with, together” + ponere “to place.” In the fertilizer sense, which is the journey we will begin here, compost is attested in English from as early as the 1580s. To create compost is “to put together” a lot of organic material into a place and let it rot with the magic of microbes, which we’ll touch on later.
My Composting Total Fail
If you are like me, you recognize how much waste you create every week when you take out the trash. In the back of your mind, you may know you should be doing a better job of reducing your household waste. We are constantly reminded by the media of the consequences of climate change and the need for more action toward caring for our environment. I was floored by a December 2nd, 2019, article in our local newspaper, Community Impact. The article was about the closing of the Lewisville Landfill, managed by Waste Management, which was almost at capacity. According to the article, the Lewisville Mountain of Trash landfill accepts 5000 TONS of garbage A DAY! In the fall when the leaves are dropping all around us, up to 50% of what goes into landfills is organic matter (LEAVES) (according to some estimates). In other words, half of our trash could be composted and returned to Mother Earth.
But, with work, kids, school, after-school sports, and, oh yeah, we’re in the middle of a pandemic(!), it’s easy to put off composting your fall leaves, as well as your tea bags, coffee grounds, food scraps, and other organic matter around the house for another day (or year).
One spring day I thought to myself, I can do this. How hard can composting be? Here’s how my epic fail at composting went down . . . time for a family meeting! OK, we’ve decided to take the composting plunge. After a little research and some home landscape surveillance, I buy a compost bin from a big online retailer (55-gallon barrel that lays on its side with a large screw-off opening and, for turning, it rotates on its base). When it arrives, I excitedly open the box, assemble the bin, and decide where to put it . . . yes, right next to the trash can space on the side of the house.
Next, I enthusiastically recruit the entire family to “get on board the compost train!” The spouse, the kid, family, and friends are all in; anyone who comes over quickly learns I am serious about saving the landfill from its annual half a million TONS of compostable waste. So, if it came from a plant, it is organic matter and it does not go down the drain or in the trash. Where does it go? You guessed it. Right in this little bucket (also purchased online) in the kitchen under the sink and when it is full, we dump it in the . . . say it with me . . . C-O-M-P-O-S-T B-I-N.
A few weeks go by and I am feeling particularly good about myself and all I am doing, single-handedly, to stop the earth from warming, and . . . this is when things started to go south. Evidently, it is not as easy as just throwing all your scrap veggies (no oil), fruit, dryer lint, hairbrush hair, grass clippings, leaves, eggshells, tea bags, paper, twigs, coffee grounds, etc., in the bin and voilà! Compost? Well, no.
We eat a lot of fruit at our house. Guess what? Fruit attracts FRUIT FLIES! There were enough fruit flies (and house flies) inside the bin and in our kitchen to carry me off to Brazil. And the smell! OMG. I needed a hazmat suit to endure it. What happened?
I must admit, I took a long hiatus from composting after my epic fail. Little did I know, I had come very close to the ideal conditions for breaking down all our organic matter with minimal pests and without foul odors. With just a few simple tweaks, the composting process would have begun in my bin, with millions of microbes happily and aerobically breaking down our organic garbage. I hope this is good news for you and you will persevere through your own composting learning curve as we enter the leafy fall season.
Rules for Rotting ̶ How to Keep Your Microbes Happy
Happy microbes are your main goal when composting. To keep your microbes chomping away at your organic matter, you must know the Rules of Rotting. Use this TLA (three-letter acronym) from our friends at The Composting Council to help you remember the 5 components needed for successful composting: ATM3. OK, so that is a TLA + a number, but stay with me. Here they are:
Our little microbe friends need air to survive and multiply. This is why we need to turn over or rotate the bin/pile. While the composting process can be anaerobic (no oxygen), it’s best to stick with the aerobic (with oxygen) process. Research tells us that turning the compost bin/pile every three days is optimal. Don’t worry if you miss a few days; just try to turn it twice a week. If you don’t turn it that often, it will just take longer for your compost to breakdown.
When our tiny microbes have all they need to thrive, over time the temperature of the bin/pile will increase. The more microbial activity taking place in the compost pile/bin, the greater the increase in temperature within the materials being composted. Higher temperatures speed the breakdown of organic materials.
What kind and how much organic matter you add to the compost bin/pile is where those new to composting may feel intimidated – I know I did. Similar to how fertilizer is sold with various ratios of elements, usually N (Nitrogen), P (Phosphorus), and K (Potassium), which are printed on the fertilizer bag, microbial activity in the compost bin/pile is best within a certain ratio of C (Carbon) and N (Nitrogen) sources.
Research tells us the ideal ratio for optimal composting is Carbon to Nitrogen = 30:1. So, how do we get to 30:1? Think Greens = N and Browns = C. Greens are N (Nitrogen) rich and Browns are C (Carbon) rich. Your food scraps are greens. Your fresh cut lawn trimmings are greens, but once they turn brown, well obviously, they’re browns. Fall leaves are your best source for brown stuff because they breakdown so quickly.
The greens have very low carbon to nitrogen ratio, usually 15 parts C to 1 part N. Leaves are more like 60:1. Tree branch/twig is 700:1. Wood is 700:1. So, if you add sawdust (500:1) to bring the ratio down, you’ll have to add a whole bunch of greens to get your ratio right.
I keep a couple of large BLACK (more heat absorbent) trash bags full of leaves (with plenty of holes poked through the sides to let the AIR in) next to my compost bin. After dumping a gallon bucket of green stuff in the bin/pile, I then dump enough leaves to thoroughly cover the green stuff I just added. Not very scientific, but it keeps my stress level low. Here’s a list of common compostable material and their respective ratios:
Also, remember, particle size affects how quickly your materials breakdown – the smaller the better. I try to chop up anything larger than a quarter. I chop broccoli stalks, melon rinds, beet greens, etc. Yes, it takes a little extra time, but the results will be worth it.
Also, if you keep your fall leaves in large black trash bags (with holes), the leaves will decompose into a great mulch. So, if you do not use them all in your compost bin/pile, you can use them as mulch in your beds.
The idea is to balance the ratio of green to brown materials to 30-parts brown (Carbon source) for every 1-part green (Nitrogen source). If you struggle with the math, do not worry. Over time, you will learn to adjust your materials based on the results your microbes produce.
Inevitably, composting does go awry. Use the troubleshooting guide that follows to help you diagnose symptoms of unhappy microbes.
Picture a wrung-out sponge. That’s about as wet as your compost needs to be. If it’s too dry, your microbes can’t reproduce. If it’s too wet, no air will circulate and microbes will die. If you can squeeze a handful of compost and no water comes out, you’ve got the right amount of moisture. Again, don’t panic if you have too much; remember, water evaporates. If there is room in the compost bucket, I usually add a little water before I take it out to the bin. If the compost looks dry, I’ll toss the water in with the contents of the bucket; otherwise, if it looks wet enough, I’ll drain the water in the yard before adding the contents. Nevertheless, add water when needed.
Turns out, the composting process suffers if your bin/pile is too small because it dries out too quickly. It needs to be big enough to retain heat and moisture, but small enough so air can penetrate to the center of the bin/pile. Ideally, a bin/pile will be 3 feet in height, length, and depth, 3′ x 3′ x 3′ = 27 sq. ft. My 55-gallon barrel works pretty well. Don’t worry if your bin/pile is smaller. Just understand your composting will take longer.
If you experience any of the problems I encountered or others, – and you will – use the table below for solutions. In the end, you will learn simple steps to keep your microbes happy. Be persistent and have patience, and know that you are taking a step toward reducing your carbon footprint. Every time a rind, peel, leaf, etc., finds its way back to nature instead of in our water supply or landfill, we are that much closer to lowering the costs our children and their children will pay for the havoc that climate change will wrought.
For More Information on Composting Fundamentals:
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension “Composting”: https://agrilifeextension.tamu.edu/library/gardening/composting/
Water University, “Soil > Composting”:https://wateruniversity.tamu.edu/soil/composting/
DCMGA “Gardening from the ground up – soil and composting”: https://dcmga.com/files/2019/10/soil-and-composting-2019-final-for-web.pdf
The Composting Council: https://www.compostingcouncil.org/