Hey! Quit wasting all those fallen leaves

Fall leaf pick-up time in Grand Junction is a dangerous time for me to be driving around.

I cruise by all those piles of leaves and feel like someone piled gold in the gutters. Even worse is when I see black plastic bags holding the potential compost hostage, where it won’t even make it to the landfill composting facility.

All that organic material, treated to the right conditions, makes the most beautiful, rich compost for your garden.

I already have a small mountain of leaves in my backyard, so I have to resist the urge to pull over and shovel someone else’s leaves into my vehicle. You’ve got to draw the line somewhere.

One tenet you can’t miss in the Master Gardener class is the fact that we have terrible soil for growing things here. Most Grand Valley residents’ soil is heavily clay, which needs amending to make nutrients more accessible to plant roots and to retain moisture.

There’s a reason we had such large clods of dirt to hurl at each other as children out on the farm. The clay forms large, practically impenetrable hunks of soil.

Compost is an amendment you can add to hard soil to help plants grow. You can make it yourself or purchase it by the bag at garden centers or the truckload-full at the Mesa County landfill.

If you’re a do-it-yourselfer, composting in western Colorado can be tricky. You have to have the right temperature, moisture and ventilation. It really is a science, and whole books are dedicated to the subject.

It’s part of nature, but here we have to create the right conditions to get results faster. Material doesn’t break down as fast in a desert as it does in a rainforest.

According to Colorado State University Extension, soil microbes that help break down organic matter do their work between 70–140 degrees. I know what you’re thinking: Winter around these parts generally does not produce that sort of environment.

But remember that the inside of a compost pile is insulated and can be much warmer than the outer edges. My experience is that if I pile a bunch of leaves and they get wet over the season a few times, I will have some rich, black compost at the bottom of that pile in about six to eight months.

You wouldn’t know it from looking at the top of the pile, and if I kept a better eye on it and turned it more for aeration, the pile would be more productive. But over time, nature does its work without me.

CSU Extension’s fact sheet, “Composting Yard Waste,” estimates that in optimum conditions (meaning hot, adequately moist and properly aerated), you could produce compost in two months. My pile takes a LOT longer, but it does shrink over time and there’s compost treasure under there somewhere. I don’t use a structure (which is recommended) but there are a lot of options out there if you want to build or purchase a compost bin.

Some problems I’ve encountered in my amateur composting are:

■ Wicked stench. This usually means I got fired up and soaked the pile too much, and the pool of water at the bottom of the pile is stagnant. And I didn’t turn the pile enough. If the pile stinks, I just stir up that stink to get some good oxygen in there.

■ Nothing’s happening. Usually this means I need moisture in the pile. Bacteria can’t work if the pile is dried out. I hose it down and turn it a bit to get it going. CSU also recommends covering the pile with a tarp so it doesn’t dry out so much, which I will have to try.

■ I moisten the pile and, still, nothing’s happening. This usually means I have too much dry, brown material and I need some source of nitrogen for the bacteria to eat. Green grass clippings or manure often help. But if you use manure, be careful to not use a kind that is particularly high in salt, such as turkey or steer manure. Horse manure is great.

The way I see it, even if winter isn’t the most attractive time to start a compost pile, you could heap that organic material somewhere for the season and get it going after temperatures warm.

Or, I guess you could buy your leaves back from the landfill after they finish cooking the compost.

For information on composting, check out CSU’s factsheet No. 7.212 at http://www.ext.colostate.edu.

Erin McIntyre is a writer, master gardener and owner of the gourmet pickle company, Yum Pickles. Email her at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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