Composting & Yard Waste

Composting and Yard Waste

What Is Compost?
Organic materials such as leaves, grass and vegetable scraps are broken down by microorganisms, forming a rich soil-like substance called compost or humus.

What Do You Need to Home Compost?
All you need to compost is enthusiasm, yard or food waste (except meat or dairy products), and some space. Compost piles don't need to be enclosed, although many people use a bin or similar enclosure. Compost bins can be purchased or you can easily construct one with common materials such as chicken wire, snow fencing, lumber or used pallets. Other tools that come in handy for composting are a garden hose, wheelbarrow and common garden tools.

Getting Started
A 4 x 4 x 4 foot area out of direct sunlight is ideal for your compost pile. Choose an easily accessible spot on a grass or soil base. Composting can begin any time of the year, but many people start in the fall when leaves are abundant. Organic materials should be mixed, adding water as needed so that the materials feel like a moist sponge. The compost pile should be turned after a few weeks so that the outside layers are exchanged with the center of the pile. Turn compost piles about once a month, except in cold winter conditions. Water can be added during turning, if necessary.

What to Avoid
While many yard wastes and kitchen scraps can be successfully composted, some materials should be kept out of the compost pile. Do not compost:

  • Diseased plants or leaves

  • Persistent weeds (poison ivy, multiflora rose, bindweed, quack grass, etc.)

  • Human or pet feces

  • Meat, dairy products and kitchen vegetables cooked with animal fats

  • Plants that have gone to seed

Composting Pile Chart

Using Compost
Compost is ready to be used when it looks dark and crumbly and none of the starting ingredients are recognizable. One way to test if your compost is finished is to seal a small sample in a plastic bag for 24 to 48 hours. If no strong odors are released when you open the bag, the compost is done. Compost can be applied directly around the base of trees and shrubs to serve as mulch. It also can be worked into the top six to eight inches of the soil to provide increased water retention and valuable nutrients.

Brush and Wood Waste
Trimmings from bushes and shrubs are usually not suitable for composting because of size. Home chippers can be used to grind small branches and prunings for mulch, ornamental landscaping or garden pathways. Old Christmas trees and similar brush may also be left in a secluded part of your yard to attract birds and serve as natural wildlife habitat.

Grasscycling -- Easy Steps to a Low-Maintenance Lawn
Grass clippings make up a large percentage of the household waste produced each year. About 1,000 square feet of lawn in Pennsylvania can produce 200 to 500 pounds of clippings during the growing season. A simple alternative to bagging grass clippings is "grasscycling". Simply leave clippings on your lawn where they break down in 7 to 14 days. The clippings act as a top-dressing fertilizer and help keep your lawn green and healthy.

Grass clippings also can be used as surface mulch around vegetables or flowers to inhibit weed growth and retain soil moisture. Remember to keep clippings at least 2 inches away from young plants to avoid "burning" the new growth. Put grass clippings in your compost pile to add extra nutrients. To avoid odors, no more than one-third of a compost pile should be made up of grass clippings.

Lawn Mowing, Hedge Trimming, Weeding and Raking
These simple chores produce nearly two million tons of yard waste each year in Pennsylvania. But yard debris does not need to be dumped in landfills or processed at resource recovery facilities. Instead, practice the 3 R's of waste management:

REDUCE the amount of yard waste you create through "grasscycling".
REUSE yard waste by mulching with leaves. Chip woody materials to use as mulch or to control weeds.
RECYCLE yard waste and vegetable scraps by composting to produce a valuable soil conditioner.

Grass or Soil Base