Composting saves money and helps environment

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 26, 2011

With the winter cold fast approaching, many deciduous trees have been dropping their leaves for the past month or so. There is also a layer of pine needles on the ground under the pine trees. While some people consider these leaves and pine needles to be a nuisance, many others look at them as an excellent opportunity to improve the soil in their garden or in their landscape beds. There’s no need to throw away this valuable resource. You can recycle these leaves and pine needles – either back into the landscape as mulch or through the process of composting.

Composting and returning this organic material to the garden maintains natural biological cycles and is an ecologically sensible means of recycling organic waste. It also saves the parish government money because they do not have to collect and dispose of the yard waste. Composting also reduces the amount of waste going into the landfills thereby saving needed space for other non-recyclable items.

It is very easy to use leaves and pine needles for mulch. Just rake them up and put them into beds around shrubs and trees. The layer of leaves and pine needles should be about 4 inches thick. Think of the money you will save not having to purchase mulch. Also rake up the leaves and put a 2-inch layer around bedding plants, in flowerbeds or around vegetable plants in the garden. If you bag the leaves using a mower, the chopped leaves are particularly nice as mulch.

Leaves and pine needles may also be composted. Compost is used primarily in bed preparation to improve the soil, preventing compaction and increasing the water-holding capacity of the soil. Producing compost yourself saves the cost of purchasing compost, peat moss or other organic matter for bed preparation. Compost piles should be located in a convenient but out-of-the-way location. A source of water nearby is helpful. Make the pile about 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet to 5 feet by 5 feet by 5 feet in size. Anything smaller will not decompose as well, and larger piles are more difficult to turn.

You can create a compost pile by simply piling up leaves and other organic matter and allowing natural decomposition to take place. This is sometimes called passive composting. It’s not really complicated, although using this method takes a while. Be sure to keep the organic matter moist. Depending on circumstances, it may take six to 12 months for the material to fully compost. Most gardeners prefer to enclose the compost pile in a bin. Although a number of commercial bins are on the market, you can make your own very easily. A 15-foot-long piece of hardware cloth or fencing wire bent into a circle and fastened with a few pieces of wire is inexpensive, easy to build and works well.

Typically, composting uses various techniques to speed up the natural breakdown of yard waste. Raw organic material is converted into compost by the action of fungi and bacteria. In active composting, you can do things to make these organisms work faster and more efficiently. These fungi and bacteria require adequate nitrogen, oxygen and moisture to decompose organic

matter rapidly. The active composting process attempts to provide these requirements. And the better job you do, the faster the process will occur. Shredding or finely

chopping the materials to be composted also greatly speeds up the process.

Adding a commercial fertilizer (such as 13-13-13) or an organic fertilizer (such as blood meal) that contains nitrogen will encourage rapid, thorough decomposition when brown leaves provide the bulk of what is being composted. Apply a light sprinkling of fertilizer over each 8- to 12-inch layer of organic matter as the pile is built.

Besides fallen leaves, you can

compost a variety of organic materials, including grass clippings,

shredded hedge clippings, raw vegetable and fruit trimmings, coffee grounds from the kitchen, dead houseplants and old flower arrangements. Never put cooked foods, grease, meat, seafood scraps, fat

and dog or cat droppings in the

pile. Food scraps may attract unwanted animals and pests. It is also best not to put into the compost diseased plants or weeds that have set seed.

Oxygen is provided to the pile by enclosing the pile in a bin that has sides with a lot of ventilation openings that allow air to move in and out. Turning the pile occasionally is labor intensive, but it does ensure the pile is well aerated and speeds decomposition.

During dry weather it may be necessary to water the pile to maintain adequate moisture levels. Dry organic matter will not decompose. The pile should stay moist but not be constantly soggy. A pile that stays too wet does not contain enough oxygen and may produce sour odors. If this happens, turning the pile will correct the problem.

Throwing an occasional shovelful of soil into the pile as you build helps to supply the microorganisms that carry out the decomposition process. The use of special compost starter or compost-maker products is really not necessary.

As plant materials compost, they lose more than half of their volume. When compost is ready for use, it should be dark brown and crumbly, with much or all of the identity of the original material lost. The time it takes to finish varies, depending on the materials used, how finely the materials were chopped and how well moisture and oxygen levels were maintained. Two to six months is typical for a complete composting cycle, but it can happen much more quickly.

For more information and to view and copy the brochures on Composting, visit the LSU Ag Center’s website at or contact your local LSU Ag Center office.

If you have any questions, please contact your local LSU Ag Center County Agent. You can contact David Pichon, County Agent-St. John Parish at 985-497-3261 or by email at