Soil expert encourages homeowners to compost

University Park, Pa. -- Recycling and energy conservation have become part of the daily routine for many homeowners. You might even think you're doing your best for the environment. But what about those food scraps and plant materials you're dumping in the trash can?

Organic materials from your garden and kitchen should be recycled in a different way, according to an expert in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences. You should be composting.

"Composting is a way of accelerating and controlling the natural process of decomposition that occurs with all organic materials," said Richard Stehouwer, associate professor of environmental soil science. "In layman's terms, you throw your veggies, grass clippings and leaves in a big bin in the backyard. If you maintain the right conditions, the refuse will turn into compost -- a valuable soil amendment containing organic matter and nutrients."

There are a lot of benefits of using compost in your garden, Stehouwer pointed out. "Compost adds organic matter to soils, which improves soil aeration, water-holding capacity, water infiltration and nutrient retention. It is also a slow-release form of plant nutrients."

Not to mention, it's free and great for the environment. Reusing peelings and leaves means they don't end up in a landfill. And don't think you're being green by using the garbage disposal.

"Throwing food scraps in the garbage disposal means they end up at the wastewater treatment plant converted into sewage sludge," Stehouwer said. "Sewage sludge can be applied to soil to recycle the nutrients. However, there is a lot of other stuff that ends up in the wastewater and in the sewage sludge. Consequently there is a lot of concern and outright public opposition to land application of sewage sludge."

So, what should you put your compost in? Finished compost is very stable and can be stored easily in an outdoor pile, Stehouwer noted. It is advisable to keep it covered to keep weed seeds out. There are plenty of closed containers available made specifically for composting, if you are concerned with aesthetics.

But you shouldn't just throw everything food-related in the pile, according to Stehouwer. "We recommend that homeowners not compost raw meat or dairy products," he said. "These materials can attract pests and vermin. Also, most home compost piles do not reach high enough temperatures for long enough to eliminate pathogens that could be present, particularly in raw meat."

But anything plant related from the garden or the home is welcome. Adding many different kinds of materials, such as yard trimmings, leaves, grass clippings and food products will speed up the decomposition process and make a better compost product.

More information and tips on composting are available online at http://backyardcompost.cas.psu.edu/howiscompostmade/how_is_compost_made.html.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010