Composting is 'landfill' as it was meant to be

EARTH MATTERS AT HOME

October 17, 1990|By Susan McGrath | Susan McGrath,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

It's fall, and those incredibly thoughtless trees are going to be dumping their leaves all over your property again. What are you going to do about it? Rake 'em up and dump 'em in the trash?

Nationwide, yard waste makes up about 20 percent of what the average household sends to the landfill. And, as you may already be tired of hearing, landfills around the country are filling up in a hurry. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. It's what landfills are supposed to do. The problem is that no one is very keen on having new ones open up in their neighborhood, so the old landfills aren't being replaced.

Squeezed for dumping space, at least 13 states are in the process of banning yard waste from their garbage. Instead, local governments are putting on their gardening gloves and trying their hands at composting.

Composting is the process by which organic matter such as leaves and grass clippings are recycled into humus, a rich soil fertilizer. The simplest way to think of it is as a sort of managed rotting. It's something organic farmers have always done. Now cities are doing it too.

In Seattle, for example, residents set their yard waste out for curbside pickup separately from their other trash. A city contractor collects the stuff, composts it and markets the finished product to various city agencies.

As is the case with most communities, Seattle finds composting yard waste much cheaper than dumping it in a landfill. It's still no bargain, however. The yard waste has to be picked up at every household and driven all over the place before it even gets to where it will be composted.

Ideally, each household would compost its own yard waste at home. That's why some cities are going one step further. They will drop a compost-bin kit on your doorstep and teach you how to do it yourself.

Here's why you might be interested: If you compost 20 or more percent of your own garbage at home, you'll be saving your community the expense of composting or dumping it. You'll be recycling natural resources rather than investing more resources in burying them somewhere expensive. And, with very little effort and no cost, you'll produce rich, homemade organic fertilizer to improve your soil.

And I do mean little effort. Composting can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be. You don't aspire to be an urban peasant? Just pile the stuff up in a heap. Eventually it will rot, giving you humus in 12 to 18 months. You like to putter in the garden? With a little tinkering, you can produce divine humus in just six weeks.

A compost pile is really a sort of high-rise microbial ranch, and bacteria are the principal critters at work here. They break down the plant tissue. Once zillions of bacteria are in full swing, they are joined by fungi and protozoans. Later, centipedes, millipedes, earthworms and beetles move in to help finish the job.

The speed of decomposition depends on the carbon to nitrogen ratio. This means the ratio of brown dead plant matter, such as autumn leaves, to still-green dead plant matter, such as fresh grass clippings; it is expressed as C:N. It also depends on moisture, availability of oxygen, volume and surface area. Maintain these variables close to the ideal, and you have quick compost. Let nature take its course, and you eventually get compost anyway.

The finished product, in the irresistible words of a compost-bin manufacturer's brochure, is a "dark, crumbly, nutrient-rich, earthy-smelling soil conditioner." I don't know about you, but my soil could certainly use a little of that stuff.

Your city may not have a home composting program yet, but there's no reason you can't do it on your own. If you have even a little bit of land with some greenery on it, you should consider composting your yard waste.

To get started composting, call your local Cooperative Extension Service for help. Or send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to: Seattle Tilth Association, 4649 Sunnyside Ave. N., Seattle, Wash. 98103, and ask for a list of available literature.

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