Composting the San Marcos Way


Dumpster diving is a time honored tradition in San Marcos. It is celebrated at the end of each Southwest Texas University semester as the students leave for one reason or another, discarding their possessions like so many fallen leaves in the dumpsters around town. Those who are left behind, paw through the treasure, wondering why anyone would throw away such good stuff!

Now to add to the trash traffic, we have a battalion of cruising pickups, scouting the neighborhoods before trash collection day to see who’s put out bagged leaves and lawn clippings. And let me tell you, it’s getting competitive out there. You have to be quick or someone else will snag them! Used to be, there were so few of us who realized the value of leaves, we all knew each other and had cordoned off our own territories. Now with all the new players in town, it’s every person for his or herself. Let the best one bag the most!

A Master Composter was recounting the story about the night he and his wife went out to eat and spotted several bags in the historic district. "We’ll wait until we have dinner," he said. "I don’t want to load them and get all dirty before I eat." Famous last words. Yep, by the time they returned, the bags were gone. Darn!

Why all this leaf rustling? Leaves are a valuable natural resource that can be used to provide a good source of organic matter and nutrients for use in your landscape. You need to hang on to your leaves or join in the hunt for more. If your neighbors don’t want them, hang on to theirs!

At least 20% of the solid waste generated by Texans comes from grass clippings, tree leaves and landscape wastes. (This is also true nation and worldwide in suburban towns.) Bagging these materials for curbside garbage collection removes nutrients from the environment and costs the people of Texas more in increased taxes and service fees.

Leaves contain 80% of the nutrients a plant extracts from the soil and air during the growing season. They should be saved and composted with other organic material and placed on your lawn or in your beds to supply existing plants with a natural, slow release, form of nutrients.

Shredded leaves can be mixed with kitchen waste and animal manure to supply your plants with all the nutrients they need. Careful with the manure though. Our Master Composter has friends that raise exotic birds who offered their excrement for the compost pile. Not one to turn down an offer of free sh--, he drove his pickup over to claim his prize and add to his pile.

As the compost began to heat up, its odor slowly permeated the neighborhood. The temperature of the pile shot up and the smell was, well, BAD. He had to quickly water down the compost to stop the ‘cooking’ and then go door to door, apologizing.

When a friend of his called him asking for some manure ‘starter’ for his compost, our Master Composter cut the exotic with some tamer stuff and gave it to him. "I guess it worked out all right, I haven’t heard from him," he said with a sigh of relief.

Compost is supposed to ‘cook’, heating up to 80 to 150 degrees or so to properly break down all the ingredients. Some manure such as fowl are ‘hot’ and need to be cut with a more neutral one such as sheep, cow or horse. A good working compost pile does not smell and when it is ready, no single ingredient should be recognizable. It should be moist, not wet, and a rich, dark color like chocolate cake.

Really, composting is sort of like baking a cake. Shredding the leaves is like sifting the flower. Mixing in the manure, water, soil (if you have any), shredded leaves-twigs-bark-branches and kitchen vegetable scraps is like mixing in eggs, milk, shortening and leavening. Pile it up in the shade or fill a composter barrel or bin and let it cook, much like filling the pans with batter and putting them in the oven. There are thermometers for composters and special forks for turning, too. But any garden fork or shovel will do. Unlike baking a cake, compost piles must be turned once or twice a week to aerate them. Oxygen is a necessary element of the decomposition process.

And the animals love it. The cats will climb all over the pile they deem better than a sandbox. Your dog will wear himself out marking the pile because of the strange manure, supplying even more nitrogen to assist in the decomposition process.

Composting dates back to the early Greeks and Romans. In colonial America, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington Carver recognized the value of composting. It can be accomplished in a free standing pile, trench or bin constructed of wire, snow fencing, rocks or brick or even in a plastic bag. And it’s not necessary to shred the leaves before composting, it merely hastens the process. With the new self-enclosed composting barrels sold by garden stores and mail-order catalogs, you make up in time what is lost in volume. If left out in the full sun, a barrel will cook up a small batch of wonderful ‘chocolate’ compost in two weeks’ time.


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