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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Turn Over a New Leaf this Fall: Start a Backyard Compost Pile

LAS CRUCES -- Today's trash can be transformed into food for next spring's garden, if you start a fall compost pile with leaves and kitchen scraps.

More than a quarter of the waste that ends up in landfills each year could be composted, said George Dickerson, horticulture specialist with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service.

About 18 percent of landfill waste is leaves, grass clippings and other materials from yards and landscapes. Another 8 percent is food waste. Instead of clogging landfills, those leaves and fruit and vegetable peelings can be recycled as backyard compost.

"This time of year leaves make up the biggest component of landscape wastes," Dickerson said. "Leaves are one of the easiest landscape wastes to compost. Another benefit of removing leaves around shrubs and trees in the landscape is that it helps expose overwintering bugs to freezing weather."

Before placing leaves in a compost bin or pile, it's best to run them through a shredder or rotary mower. Shredding speeds up the composting process because it increases surface area, making it easier for microorganisms to do their job of decomposing wastes. Adding food waste, grass clippings, livestock manure, or a nitrogen fertilizer to the shredded leaves also will help microorganisms break down carbon in the leaves.

"Don't forget to add some water to the pile or bin when you're mixing everything up," Dickerson said. "The consistency should be that of a damp sponge. It's also a good idea to add some soil because it contains microorganisms to help the pile decompose."

The compost pile or bin should be at least three feet high and three feet wide to insulate microorganisms from cold weather. If everything has been done correctly, the pile should start heating up in a couple of days.

"A well-constructed compost pile should reach up to 150 degrees," Dickerson said. "This should kill most nasty organisms or weed seed in the pile. The pile should then be turned with a garden fork, moving material from the outside of the pile to the middle of a new pile. Once it heats up, turn the pile again."

Finished compost can be used next spring to mulch around shrubs or flowers or as a soil enhancer for gardens. Compost has dual benefits: it improves soil structure and provides nutrients in an organic form essential for good plant growth.