Composting good for the environment

The great thing about autumn is colorful beauty of the leaves on the trees.

The worst thing about autumn is when those leaves end up in your yard.

Yes, fall is the time of year for raking leaves, and experts are reminding people that proper management of leaves and other yard materials this autumn can help maintain the area’s natural beauty.

Air quality and fire rules restrict the burning of yard materials in Michigan and Wisconsin. A growing number of communities also have local rules in place that further restrict or completely prohibit burning yard materials.

In smaller communities and rural areas where yard waste burning is still allowed, Michigan and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources officials encourage families to compost their leaves and other yard waste instead – it’s healthier and better for the environment, experts say.

“Methods such as mulching leaves on site and composting yard materials allow residents to protect the state’s air quality,” says Brad Wolbert, recycling and solid waste chief for the Wisconsin DNR. “They also reduce costs for local governments and households.”

Using leaves for mulch and compost can also enrich the health of lawns and gardens, save money on fertilizer and save municipalities money on yard waste collection.

Most local communities, including Iron Mountain, Kingsford, and Norway have municipal composting programs.

Whether you have heavy clay soil or very sandy soil, compost can help with nutrient availability, moisture retention and provide clay with better drainage, Michigan State University Extension officials say.

Wisconsin DNR experts suggest area homeowners manage leaves, branches, grass clippings and other yard trimmings with one of the following methods.

Mulching leaves in place

Leaves are rich in carbon, phosphorus, and potassium – all essential nutrients needed by plants, including turf grasses. Mow leaves along with the grass during fall, and leave the finely chopped material on your lawn. Another option is to rake up the leaf pieces and use them as winter ground cover for gardens and around trees and shrubs. This will help insulate plants and protect them from winter freeze damage.

Home composting

If you would rather compost your leaves, there are many easy structures you can build to start a compost pile. Be sure to maintain a mix of “browns” – fallen leaves, dead plants, dried grass clippings, soil paper, sawdust and small branches – and “greens” – fresh grass clippings, green plants and food scraps including coffee grounds. Finished compost can be sprinkled into lawn soil or used in a garden to provide organic material and nutrients. Ultimately, this builds soil organic content and reduces the need for fertilizers.

Keep leaves handy for next season

Dry leaves keep well in plastic bags, and many people keep a few bags of leaves from the fall to add “browns” to their compost piles throughout the year. You can also use your stored leaves for mulch.

The material added to soils from composting is called “humus,” Michigan State University Extension experts add.

Humus is the finished product from composting that resist breaking down further. The unique thing about humus is that it helps out with different extremes in soils.

The composting process can be as simple as piling garden debris and letting it breakdown over a couple seasons or it can be done in a couple months by turning the pile when it cools and keeping it moist which helps speed up the process.

Regardless of the compost method you use, it will produce an amendment that can be beneficial to the soil.

Experts offer these additional pointers for home composting:

– Keep it simple. Leaves make great mulch applied either in the fall or stored for use next year. It’s easy to build or buy a simple structure for composting, or to compost leaves in a pile with a little care. Bury or till leaves into your garden to add healthy organic matter and nutrients to the soil.

– If you add both brown material such as leaves and sticks and green material like grass clippings and vegetable cuttings, layer the green within brown material. This properly distributes the nitrogen rich green materials among the carbon rich brown materials to ensure that compost grows a healthy stock of desirable microbes to decompose in an inoffensive way.

– Supply the basics. Compost needs fresh air and water to help microbes break the material down and prevent odors. In a covered bin, add some water. Turn the compost to make sure air gets mixed in throughout.

– Generally, green material makes the composting process faster, but faster is not necessarily better. Faster decomposition requires more air and more attention to keep the compost from being a nuisance. Even at 5 percent of green material in the mixture, layering green and brown materials and some weekly turning becomes more important.

– Recycling food waste like vegetable trimmings, tea bags, coffee grounds and eggshells is best done in a covered bin, again layering with brown material. The use of red worms in bins to recycle food waste efficiently is also popular.

– A foul smell indicates the compost pile is not getting enough air. This might be from too much moisture, too much green material in the mixture or materials getting compacted together over time. Turning the compost eliminates spots without oxygen that have developed and helps allow good air circulation throughout. Layering green materials within brown materials also helps maintain good airflow, since the brown materials take longer to break down and are usually larger.

– Locate composting away from structures and within reach of a garden hose. This will keep any unpleasant odors and interested animals and insects away from your buildings. It is also good fire safety. While home compost fires are rare, compost piles do generate heat, and under the right combination of conditions, materials may smolder or even catch fire.

– Locate composting on a soil surface that drains well. Preferably, the composting should have some sort of vegetation growing around it to use up nutrients that get rinsed out and should be relocated every few years.