Going back to the Garden
Written by: Alisha McDarris
It is summertime in Texas. The sun is shining brightly, afternoons are toasty, and flowerbeds and backyard gardens are begging for attention. What better time than now to begin a new recycling project for the good of your bushes and blooms? Now is as good a time as any to start composting!
Recycling is not a new concept, but composting occasionally gets overlooked in the “reduce, reuse, recycle” conversation. The U.S. has been turning old aluminum cans into new aluminum cans, glass bottles into decorative centerpieces, and plastic bottles into handbags for decades. But for some reason, compost, one important arm of the recycling circle, remains oddly underrated.
The encouraged decomposition of organic materials into dark, nutrient-rich soil might not be as widely touted as other forms of recycling (and every once in a while it gets a bad rap for being complicated, messy, and smelly), but utilizing everyday waste instead of disposing of it is both environmentally responsible, and it can turn your garden into a lush and vibrant wonderland (and if you do it right, it might not even smell).
The Nitty Gritty
Compost works when organic materials, heat, water, and time all combine to transform scraps like vegetable waste and dead leaves into a dark, rich powerhouse that makes it easier for plants to absorb nutrients in the soil. Placed together in a bin or pile in a ratio of roughly one part fresh, green matter (like old newspapers and dead leaves), the nitrogen- and carbon-rich materials work together to break down over a couple of months, creating a dense compost that plants will eat up.
It is the ultimate form of recycling: taking natural materials and returning them to nature.
So why get your hands dirty making, well, dirt, and dedicate space in your garden for a foreign contraption that makes it all happen? The short answer is that it is good for your garden and good for the environment. But it is so much more than just that.
Compost helps the garden flourish and thrive by adding beneficial microorganisms and reducing the need to use chemical fertilizers. “By adding organic material, you make plants stronger and more resistant to diseases,” says Sara Nichols, Executive Director of the State of Texas Alliance for Recycling (STAR).
It helps regulate soil and root temperatures in extreme Texas weather conditions and acts like a tea bag, using water to steep roots in nutrients. The takeaway is that plants are heartier, healthier, and more abundant, all without resorting to chemical fertilizers.
And restricting chemical fertilizer and pesticides means there is less toxic runoff when wet weather arrives, keeping harmful pollutants out of local waterways. Compost also helps absorb water more readily, as soil with more organic material (like the type compost provides) retains more moisture, meaning less watering and fewer puddles amongst your rose bushes during Texas downpours.
But perhaps the most environmentally responsible aspect of composting is that it closes the loop in the recycling circle. Texas residents recycle glass, plastic, cardboard, and even electronics, but food scraps often go to a landfill where they emit harmful greenhouse gases as they break down. Organics are the only things in a landfill that do so, according to Bryan Moore, Compost Operations Supervisor for Plano, Texas.
It also takes up a ton of space (about 40 percent of what goes into a landfill is compostable), and with cities like Austin trying to reach goals of zero waste in upcoming years, convincing Texans to compost is a big part of making that happen. “If you don’t consider organic material, you can’t really put a dent in what we’re putting in a landfill,” says Risa Weinberger, a member of STAR’s Texas Compost Council.
Get To It
It all starts with a bin, or a box, or a tumbler, or some old lumber and chicken wire. The vessel is up to you, and the good news is that it does not even have to look like yard clutter. There are many models designed to look like furniture or garden installations. Of course, there is always the option of purchasing an inconspicuous model that blends in with your garden, that guests may not even notice when they take a walk around your flowerbeds.
Lacking a large yard or garden? There are smaller models that fit in limited spaces and require no more than a crank of the handle every day or two.
The one key function to look for when shopping for a compost bin, according to Moore, is ease of use. If you have to work at it, you may not use it. Pick a model that is easy to rotate, one with a hand crank or one that rolls easily. Then put it somewhere it will actually get used, such as within a few steps of your backdoor where it will provide ease of access.
Make it even simpler by keeping a small bin in your kitchen or on your patio. Designs range from swanky stainless steel to natural bamboo and are designed to look no more out of place on your countertop than a cookie jar or ice bucket. For outside, you can procure a basic tumbler model, a suave cedar box, or even a vessel that resembles the terracotta pots you are already using for your succulents. It is simply a matter of choosing one that fits your style.
Get Your Hands Dirty
Once you have your bin, composting is as easy as collecting materials. Most organic materials will do. Compost piles love fruit and vegetable scraps, yard waste like leaves and grass, and coffee grounds. If it grows, it goes. But keep out meat and dairy, oils, and non-organic products like wax paper. Add it all to the bin, keeping in mind a ratio of one part wet (think apple cores and leftover rice) to three parts dry (think old newspapers and even dryer lint).
“It doesn’t have to be complicated. It pretty much happens on its own,” says Weinberger.
Compost can be used just about anywhere in the garden where you would use soil or mulch, including flower beds and vegetables gardens. Don Foote, Plantsman at Shoal Creek Nursery in Austin, suggests working 1 to 2 inches of compost into the soil any time you plant or replant for maximum effect. The only plants that will not benefit from compost are succulents and other desert plants where growth is restricted and water runoff is not an issue. Potted plants outdoors can benefit from a big of compost, though.
Turning scraps into compost is not difficult, but for those who desire a more hands-on approach to learning, many municipalities offer composting classes where participants can learn over a few hours or a few days how to do it, and do it right. Houston has a Master Composter program offered through STAR that will turn you into a composting professional in no time, and Austin provides homeowners with rebates for compost bins if they complete a short course in person or online. Check with your city or local garden center to see what is available in your area.
it is easy to get started and your garden (and the environment) will thank you for it in breadth and blooms like you have never seen.