Why go through all the bother of constructing and using a compost bin in your backyard? Well, there are a number of good reasons that include benefits to the environment, to your plants and to your pocket book.

Compost for the Garden

Of course, the number one reason for having a backyard compost pile is the compost itself.

As a gardener, compost is a wonderful soil conditioner. It can help to make clay soils more workable and to have better drainage. For sand, it can help to hold water and nutrients better. Also, organic matter can encourage all sorts of beneficial critters such as earthworms.

An ideal soil for our gardens would be 45% mineral, 25% air, 25% water and 5% organic matter. Since the organic matter is constantly breaking down in the soil, it is great to have a handy compost pile to use to replenish this vital part of the soil.

Reducing the Waste Stream

There was a time when people collecting their grass clippings and other plant byproducts and put them in their garbage can. These were then picked up and taken to a landfill somewhere. In the 1980s and 90s, many communities finally figured out that this was a massive waste of resources. All it did was add to the need for more and bigger landfills and wasted a valuable resource.

Several states now have laws against dumping yard waste into landfills. Instead, individuals and some communities have begun composting yard waste to turn it into a very useful resource.

Reusing Resources

There is one of those "Laws of Nature" that I learned long ago that said something to the effect that elements are neither created nor destroyed. In other words, the molecules of oxygen that were here whenever the earth was created are the same ones floating around in the air or tied up in water today.

So, the nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and other elements that went into making plant leaves, stems, fruit and other tissue are still there only in another form. Composting breaks down the complex tissue into its constituent parts, many of which are nutrients that may be used by plants or other living organisms.

Recycling Resources

In the past, it was common for the gardener to go to the store and buy a bag of fertilizer for his or her plants. At the end of the growing season, they would pay someone to haul away the clippings or debris from the plants. Then, the following spring, they would go back to the store to buy more nutrients.

Composting allows you to recycle those nutrients for use by plants in succeeding years. This should, at the least, cut down on the need to purchase supplementary nutrients.

Grass Clippings

At one time, it was routine for gardeners to collect all the grass clippings when they mowed the lawn. I guess in suburban or urban neighborhoods, this was considered to be "neater" somehow although as a kid from a rural community, we never worried about the clippings.

Usually, the clippings were hauled off to a landfill to be buried for eternity while some people added their clippings to a compost pile or just put them in garbage bags to rot over the winter.

With the closing of landfills to yard wastes, research was begun at several universities for alternatives. It was found that the best thing to do with grass clippings is to LEAVE THEM ON THE LAWN.

If you don't let the grass get too long in between cuttings, you can use a composting mower which will grind the blades into small particles. These will nestle down into the grass and DO NOT cause thatch. People who do this may eliminate one of their normal fertilizations since the nutrients are returned to the soil.

So, generally, you should not be collecting your grass clippings. However, if you insist on doing so, put them into the compost bin. They are a good source of nitrogen but they need to be balanced off by some carbon material.

Tree Leaves

For those who live in or near wooded areas, autumn can be both a beautiful and busy time. Depending on the number of trees in your landscape or upwind from it, you may need to deal with several layers of leaves.

As with grass clippings, in the past people would bag up the leaves and stick them in with the garbage. Or, if local laws allowed, they would burn them.

Some communities now have composting programs that take people's leaves and burning is generally a no-no in most places. So, a great alternative is to compost the tree leaves.

You can do that in the traditional manner by grinding them into small pieces and putting them in your compost bins. However, research at Michigan State University tells us that you can just mow them into small pieces and leave them on the lawn. The pieces have to be small enough so that they nestle down in the grass and do not smother it. If this is done, the composting leaf fragments will add to the organic matter in your soil and will provide a small amount of nutrients.

Methods of Backyard Composting

Note: We have provided some general information and observations on this topic aimed at the home gardener. Before you take any serious action in your landscape, check with your state's land grant university's Cooperative Extension Service for the most current, appropriate, localized recommendations.

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