Never did homeowners and gardeners think the day would come when they would have to pay extra to have grass clippings and fallen leaves carted away by the sanitation truck, but it seems as though that "someday" has arrived. Indeed, there are widespread plans in the wind by sanitation companies and local jurisdictions to charge homeowners for picking up this trash, perhaps as soon as next year.
Why the sudden change?
You might consider the crisis that's struck municipalities and counties nationwide. Simply, they are running out of landfills for legitimate trash, not to mention grass clippings, leaves, weeds and plant materials from home gardens. Because garden trash constitutes 20 percent of the debris trucked to landfills, city fathers, county officials and sanitation companies have come to the conclusion that those who contribute this organic waste should pay for having it carted away.
Of course, this is only the beginning. Next comes plastic bags. Some states have already drafted plans to prohibit the use of plastic bags of any kind in the trash; at the same time, they are encouraging consumers and supermarkets to use paper bags or other packaging products that biodegrade quickly in landfills.
If you have traditionally used the sanitation truck to dispose of grass clippings, leaves and other debris from the garden, you and thousands others around the Capital Beltway must reexamine your garden practices and, perhaps, develop a program and a strategy for processing organic waste from the garden.
If you are handicapped with hardpan soil, imagine growing annuals and perennials in a soil about as perfect as you ever saw.
If you have sandy soil, imagine shepherding cucumber, pepper and tomato plants in a garden that drains well, but also retains moisture and nutrients to support spectacular plant growth.
The secret is not trashing grass clippings and autumn leaves from your trees and, instead, composting the organic waste for a better garden. It's time we did what millions of gardeners have been doing nationwide over the years, but let's keep it simple so everyone gets to know what composting is all about and why it makes sense. Along the way, let's keep our costs to the bare minimum.
Composting is nothing more than helping organic materials to decompose. The end result of composting is most often described as peat humus, leaf mold or compost. Not only do these materials have the desired effect of helping "loosen up" clay soils but also, in sandy-loam soils found on the Eastern Shore, Southern Maryland and parts of Tidewater, they provide reservoirs for nutrients and moisture which previously drained quickly through the soil. Composting garden waste is the panacea we have overlooked or shunned these many years.
True, some consumers will never consider composting for personal if not logistical reasons; they will continue to bag their grass clippings, leaves and garden debris, but they will soon pay for the privilege. However, most homeowners will graciously attempt composting, even on a small scale. For newcomers to composting, here are the essentials:
Heat. Any enclosed container or package is fine as long as it holds heat. Remember that bacteria-microorganisms only work to decay organic matter when the temperature is 53 degrees or above. This explains why fallen leaves fail to decay over the winter when left in the garden and exposed to the elements. In an enclosed environment, however, the leaves would decay in three to five months. The warmer the temperature, the faster leaves will decay to humus. To supply heat, you can use a variety of products: 5-10-5 inorganic fertilizer or fresh cow manure. Horse manure from Rock Creek stables is fine, but manure from pasture horses is not.
Oxygen. Aerobic bacteria start the decay process going when temperatures are in the 55-degree to 110-degree range in the compost, but they won't function without oxygen. If you compost in the garden over the summer, oxygen is readily available in the pile, but is usually in short supply if you compost in air-tight containers. Anaerobic bacteria function at temperatures over 115 degrees and do not require oxygen; when they are finished working, organic matter is converted to humus.
Water. The decay process needs at least 12 percent moisture. In most cases, your materials retain huge amounts of moisture (grass clippings at least 50 percent, leaves at least 60 percent), therefore moisture is usually in good supply. However, in the early stages of composting, you should be hosing or sprinkling down the materials regularly.
pH. Bacteria thrive in a pH of 6.5 and above, so lime should be worked into the organic waste at the start. When lime (calcium carbonate) comes in contact with any urea-based fertilizer, it causes the urea to dissipate in the air, but this won't happen because you are using non-urea compounds (5-10-5 or cow manure).
Carbon. Most garden products contain carbohydrates and, in the decay process, one of the byproducts is carbon. For successful composting, you need a carbon-nitrogen ratio at least 25:1. Don't let this bother you because you're not likely to be far off the mark, one way or the other.
If you research composting with the same degree of efficiency as when you buy a car, you're apt to throw your hands up in despair when the dust settles. Yes, there is an ocean of products on the market for composting. Some examples:
Leaf shredders. There are electric powered mini-shredders (Al-Ko Kober, Black & Decker, Mantis, Vornado, Solo, Scotchmen, Kinsman Steinmax, and Lescha Zak from Germany) with price tags between $100 and $400. If you want a machine to shred leaves as well as provide mulch from tree and shrub branches, there are the heavy-duty shredder-chippers (Kemp, MTD, Mighty Mac, Roto-Hoe, Troy-Bilt, WW Grinder and others) between $300 and $1,500. Fall leaves stuffed into the shredders will emerge almost as fine as sawdust, accelerating the composting process markedly. In a pinch, the small shredders can be used to press apples for cider.
Enclosed bins. If you dislike outdoor compost piles, neighbors won't know what you're up to if you use these bins. Some come across like designer-built furnaces, others like very large barrels. Fabricated of plastic in most cases, these gadgets have saved thousands of gardens. Readily available bins include those by Kemp, Ringer and Soilsaver.
Compost accelerators. Launched a decade ago by Judd Ringer with "Compost Maker," these enzyme-bacteria products are an invaluable aid to gardeners who are composting for the first time. Inexpensive, these accelerators provide a full range of microorganisms needed for decay. Other competitive products have been brought to market in recent years.
Apart from the above, you will also encounter ready-to-assemble, open air compost frames (open bins to accommodate many bushels of leaves and organic matter), even plastic containers expressly designed for composting. You can compost easily in an oversize plastic trash container (black or green color to radiate the sun's heat inside), even large plastic trash can liners if you have ample room for storage.
Anticipating the late-October surplus of leaves, next week's column will focus on basic and extraordinary methods of composting as we try to help you turn discarded organic matter into golden soil for next year's landscape.
Other weekend priorities:
Lawns over-seeded in early September will likely be cut this weekend, so make sure you've adjusted all wheels to cut at the highest possible setting (usually 3 inches). Adjust the engine so it operates just above a stall, the idea being to cut the new grass at the least possible revolutions of the rotary blade. If you have just installed a new blade, this scenario will give you a meticulous cut. To keep the door open for a possible over-seeding in January, bag all grass clippings from here on as you cut the lawn, and stash them in a plastic trash can liner temporarily before composting over the next two weeks.
Amaryllis plants need to be moved one way or the other. If you moved the pot indoors a month ago, move the plant to the warmest room of the house with bright, indirect sunlight. Simply leave the plant intact for four more weeks without applying anything.
If your amaryllis is outdoors, carry it indoors today, moving it to a warm room with indirect light. Turn the pot on its side today so the plant returns all nutrients to the tuber, after which the stalks will yellow and brown. Amaryllis will spring to life early next month.
Jack Eden is the host of "Over the Garden Fence" Sundays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on WTOP Radio (1500 AM).