URBANA, Ill. – As fall approaches, homeowners begin to think of what to do with the falling leaves. Composting is an option which helps the environment, says Duane Friend, University of Illinois Extension educator.
Materials for a compost pile must contain carbon, nitrogen, and microorganisms. Good carbon sources include leaves, straw, and woodchips. Sources of nitrogen can come from cow and horse manure, vegetable scraps, and green grass. Garden soil has all the microorganisms needed to get the process going.
"To get a good ratio of carbon and nitrogen, materials should be layered," Friend says. Start with a 6- to 8-inch layer of brown materials, such as leaves or straw. Follow with a 1- to 2-inch layer of green materials, such as manure or vegetable scraps on top of the brown materials, then, place 1 to 2 inches of garden soil on top of the brown materials.
"Continue this layering process until you reach the top of your bin or pile," says Friend. "Mix the materials together, and let nature take its course."
Do not add meat, bones, oils, greases, pet wastes, or dairy products to compost. These materials will decrease oxygen flow in the pile.
Compost should have the moisture content of a damp sponge, says Friend. Add dry materials if you can squeeze water out of the compost, or add water if it does not feel damp. Periodic turning of the compost adds oxygen which speeds up decomposition.
Compost can be placed in holding bins or in a pile.
"Active piles will generate a lot of heat," Friend says. "Place a 4- to 5-foot metal rod into the pile. After a few hours, if the rod is warm to the touch, you know the microbes are working."
Finished compost should be dark, crumbly, and have a good earthy smell. Backyard composting may take six months to one year to finish.
To test compost quality, set up a germination test with something that germinates easily, Friend says, such as vegetable radishes. Place seeds in three to five separate containers of garden soil and compost, and see how well the seeds germinate in each medium.
Learn more about composting at one of two webinars: 1 p.m. Oct. 8 (register at https://web.extension.illinois.edu/registration/?RegistrationID=22395) or 9 a.m. Oct. 10 (register at https://web.extension.illinois.edu/registration/?RegistrationID=22551).
For more information on composting, visit the University of Illinois Extension website.
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