Composting is more than a trendy manner of handling a fall cleanup, it is a way of saving money.
It also helps the ground around the trees.
“Trees pull nutrients out of the soil, and composting is a good way to put them back,” says Michael Masiuk, executive director of Penn State University’s Allegheny extension office.
“It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to put all these leaves in bags, haul them off to landfills and then go out and buy some mushroom manure or something for your garden,” says Ellen Keefe, executive director of Westmoreland Cleanways, a group focused trash and dumping issues.
“And it is really easy,” she says, “even though you can make it as difficult as you want it to be.”
Composting can be handled in a bin, under a big pile or beneath a thin layer.
The Pennsylvania Resources Council, the privately run recycling group, has been offering composting classes since 2001. Dave Mazza, regional director of the South Side-based group, says 16,000 people have taken part in them and a survey showed 70 percent still were using their composters two years after the class.
Landscaper Paul Zambri from Bethel Park believes many people do not quite understand the process.
“People just have to know it takes some patience,” he says.
A natural form of recycling
The humus created in a composting system not only is free, it is “10 times better” than the treatment for gardens from mushroom manure, Zambri says.
All that is required is patience to let the natural breakdown happen and a little direction to help things along
“Mother Nature has been doing this sort of thing for millions of years, so it isn’t difficult,” Mazza says.
He and Zambri talk about the benefit of creating a mix of “greens and brown” to increase the production of the composts. Nitrogen in such greens as grass clippings spurs the decomposition that takes place, so some of the products of grass-cutting can be added to a compost bin.
Zambri suggests a mix of 60 percent greens to 40 percent browns.
Compost experts admit it can take a year or two to get the composting process moving steadily, something some people forget, hoping to have humus immediately. Once it is established, though, he adds, the process can be a steady source.
Masiuk calls the whole process “nutrient recycling.”
The bins can be a major part of the project. Having one might help create the appearance acceptable to many homeowners, Keefe says.
“Aesthetics can be a determining factor,” she says. “Many people don’t want a big pile of leaves in their backyard.”
But there is a cost to bins that some find unacceptable, she says. A few years ago when the state Department of Environmental Protection was giving out free bins, Keefe says there was great interest in the Westmoreland Cleanways workshops. Now that the freebies have been ended and Cleanways’ 3-cubic-feet bins cost $50, interest has sagged.
Nonetheless, the group still has its workshops to help educate homeowners about composing. One is scheduled Oct. 15 at the Valley Landfill in Irwin another Nov. 5 for the Oak Hollow Park in North Huntingdon. Fees are $10. Details: 724-836-4129.
Mazza’s Pennsylvania Resources also will be having sessions Thursday at the Shaler Library; Oct. 12 at the CCI Center in the South Side, where Pennsylvania Resources in located; Oct. 18 at Whole Food Market in East Liberty; Oct. 26 at the Mt. Lebanon Library; Nov. 1 at the East End Food Co-Op in Point Breeze; and Nov. 5 at Blueberry Hill Park in Franklin Park. Fees are $50 a person or $55 a couple, which includes a bin. Details: 412-488-7490
Other forms of help from leaves
While composting can be done without a bin, most of the experts says there are other ways of keeping an area neat.
Steve Broniszewski, the outdoor garden department manager at the McCandless Lowe’s, says an effective composing site can be put together using wire fencing and posts to define it. By cutting a small door at the bottom of the fencing, an owner can reach down to the bottom of the pile to get humus.
One of the other advantages of this system, he says, is that the open nature of the fencing enhances ventilation. Fresh air is necessary for composting, which makes stirring the material necessary.
One of the bins Lowe’s sells ($99) is mounted on a frame and tumbles to stir up leaves. Prepared humus can be taken from either end.
Another bin is $40 and has doors at the bottom on all four sides so humus can be extracted evenly.
While this method of composting produces the richest soil amendment, another form can be acquired even more simply. By raking leaves 16 to 20 inches deep over bare ground, quick breakdown can happen, “producing a rich, loamy soil” good for use in potting, Zambri says.
Leaves also can be used to help grass, he says. When a yard is “salt and peppered” with some fairly early fall leaves, a mulching mower can chop them into a decent application of fertilizer. He says that is at its most practical when the leaf-dropping is relatively light.
Those days are fast disappearing.