What to Do with Your Yard🍁Waste
Reader asks: Is having a home compost pile worth it? Yes. But first do these 5 easy things to use fall yard waste to benefit wildlife.
Dear Avant Gardener, Is having a home compost pile worth it? Environmentally, I want to reduce my carbon footprint — but does the methane gas that's naturally released from a home compost pile actually differ from when it's released from organics decomposing under a landfill? Ecologically, once I have the composted soil, is it OK to use in my garden? In other columns you've mentioned not "amending the soil" but I don't really know what that means and if it includes compost. Help! — Talking Trash in Red Hook, NY
Glad you picked up on not amending the soil! Let’s start there, because it’s the crux of the matter. And especially apt in the fall.
Natural ecosystems are self-sustaining.
In nature, animals eat plants and return the nutrients to the soil in their waste and dead bodies. If you plant natives evolved to thrive in your soil and leave plant waste where it grows you will mimic this cycle and not need amendments. More importantly, fungi and animals need that decaying plant matter for food and habitat. So it’s best to leave leaves and twigs where they fall, and stalks and snags where they stand. See “5 Ways to Use Fall Yard Waste for Wildlife” below for more on the modern way to handle yard cleanup.
Environmentally, as well as ecologically, good practice
Natural, aerobic decomposition of plant material — whether where it falls or in a compost pile — produces carbon dioxide. Anaerobic decomposition in landfills, on the other hand, produces roughly half methane, half carbon dioxide. Both are greenhouse gases, but according to the EPA,
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas 28 to 36 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere.
Therefore, keeping yard waste waste out of landfill significantly reduces your contribution to global warming. Best practice, ecologically as well as environmentally, would be as much as possible to leave leaves, stalks and snags for the wildlife (including in a brush pile), then compost the rest of your yard waste, along with appropriate food and paper waste.
That said, whether composting is “worth it” is a personal equation. I try to minimize my carbon footprint but, I confess, I’m not yet composting. (If you’re ready to compost and need help deciding which method is best for you, check out Gardens That Matter’s infographic.)
Using compost in an ecological garden
Adding compost to an orchard or vegetable garden is a great way to replenish the nutrients you remove when you harvest your fruits and vegetables. In addition, exotic (non-native) ornamental plants that did not evolve in conditions like those in your garden may need compost to thrive.
As for natives, woodland plants often benefit from a top dressing of compost in the establishment phase. If you’re starting a meadow, however, don’t add compost; it can benefit weeds more than the establishing meadow plants. (Some ecological landscape professionals add sulfur to reduce the fertility of rich soil when starting a meadow.)
And make sure not to overdo compost. The optimal amount of organic material depends on the species. The desirable level is generally less than 10 percent of the soil composition.
— The Avant Gardener
Why, How, Wow!
Many beneficial animals live in dead leaves and plant stalks: butterflies like the red-banded hairstreak, as well as bees, spiders, snails, worms, beetles, millipedes, and more. In turn, birds, turtles, chipmunks, and amphibians rely on them for food.
Piet Oudolf, planting designer for New York’s Highline, revealed the beauty of dead native perennials in winter and made it chic not to cut them down before spring. Below are Canada burnet (Sanguisorba canadensis) and New England aster (Aster novae-angliae) in winter from his book, Planting the Natural Garden.
Wondering what to do with a dead or dying tree? Read my column “1,000 Reasons to Love a Snag.”
Want to dig deeper into creating winter habitat for pollinators and other insects? Read this publication from the Xerces Society.
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