Over the years, many families across Texas and the United States have taken extra steps beyond recycling to become more environmentally friendly. You may hear your neighbors talking about their new composting bin and rainwater harvesting barrel that they bought for their house. Or, your friend is telling you about how they added compost to their soil instead of using fertilizer for their garden.
So, what is composting? According to the United States Department of Agriculture and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, composting is "the controlled aerobic biological decomposition of organic matter into a stable, hummus-like product called compost. It is essentially the same process as natural decomposition except that it is enhanced and accelerated by mixing organic waste with other ingredients to optimize microbial growth."
Compared to most fertilizers you can buy at the store; compost is a more organic alternative to replenishing your soil's nutrients. Plus, it encourages the production of beneficial bacteria and fungi that break down organic matter into humus. The main value of compost is its ability to replenish organic matter within soil, slowly release nitrogen and its positive effect on soil nutrient levels. While compost-generated nitrogen is released slowly over a couple of years, standard commercial fertilizers release nitrogen immediately and fade within a year. By releasing nitrogen more slowly, compost makes the nitrogen available to your plants for a longer period.
"Fertilizers supply nutrients in the form that plants can immediately utilize," the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension said in an online article. "Compost must be broken down by the soil food web before the nutrients can be absorbed by plants. This is why compost is considered a soil conditioner."
Compost also balances out the soil's pH levels, which is beneficial for both sandy and clay soils. If you struggle with sandy soil, the humus in compost can help retain more water and nutrients. Even heavy clay soils can benefit from the addition of compost, as it increases the pore space in the soil and improves aeration and drainage.
In addition to its soil benefits, compost is better for local water quality and conservation than fertilizer. People can mistakenly apply too much fertilizer when gardening and when the rains are heavy or you over-water your lawn, the water runs off down the street, into local storm drains, then into streams, rivers and lakes, carrying pollutants with it. The runoff water can bring fertilizers, which can be harmful to water quality and wildlife, to local bodies of water.
When fertilizer ends up in the water, it causes an exponential increase in nutrients. Nitrogen and phosphorus are found in water naturally, but when the fertilizer's nutrients are added, it can lead to excessive aquatic vegetation and algae growth. If you start implementing compost into your gardening and landscaping routine, you may be able to limit your fertilizer use after a few seasons of compost. Compost also improves moisture retention in the soil, which decreases the need to water frequently.
With its long list of benefits, composting has become more popular over the years. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to make compost at home and at a small cost. Compost can be made from kitchen scraps, lawn clippings, newspapers, leaves, wood chips, coffee grinds and most food products except for processed foods and meat or fish products.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, composting requires three basic ingredients:
• Browns - dead leaves, branches, and twigs. These ingredients provide carbon to your compost.
• Greens - grass clippings, vegetable waste, fruit scraps, and coffee grounds. These ingredients provide nitrogen to your compost.
If you plan to make your own compost, your compost pile should have equal parts of browns and greens. You can learn more about composting at home here.
However, if you are interested in simply purchasing compost to add to your soil, a partnership between the cities of Temple and Belton and the Brazos River Authority has provided Tri-Gro compost and mulch to those who live in the central part of the Brazos River basin since 1990.
Biosolids from the Temple-Belton Regional Wastewater System facility are combined with wood products from brush, limbs, and trees collected by the cities to create compost and mulch products. By using both products, the need for additional landfill space is significantly reduced.
The use of Tri-Gro mulch improves the appearance of flowerbeds, helps reduce weed growth, decreases soil temperatures during hotter weather, insulates plants when temperatures are cooler and can also provide a quality walking surface on paths. Tri-Gro is defined as "a treated sludge product," which meets the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality requirements for use as a soil conditioner and organic fertilizer. The BRA recommends not using the products on crops that are intended for human consumption.
"Tri-Gro makes the soil more pliable, so it's easier to work," said Randy Lock, Chief Operator of the Temple-Belton Wastewater Treatment Plant, in an article. "There are also micronutrients in Tri-Gro that you don't get from synthetic fertilizer. It's also good for different types of soil, whether clay or sandy. One of the main things people should know is that this is a Class A product approved by the EPA and the TCEQ."
For more information about Tri-Gro compost and mulch at the Temple-Belton Wastewater Treatment Plant, click here.