Don't Let Autumn's Yard Debris Go To Waste



By now you have probably raked up all the fallen leaves of autumn, twigs, annual weeds and pine needles, and wonder what to do with them. With the exception of pine needles, most organic surplus will decompose reasonably quickly. Pine needles take many years to break down.

Have you walked in a forest of pine trees and noticed that the ground you are walking on appears to be a bed of needles? If you scrape a small patch and dig down, you will come to some gorgeous blackish stuff consisting of decomposed pine needles, which have taken years to change state. This black material is fine for adding to your potting mix.


Maury Clapp turning the compost tumbler full of a new mix of compost. The tumbler is one form of equipment that can be used to create compost from yard debris and other organic waste.

There are several ways of making compost with organic waste, but this does not include dog, cat or human waste, all of which need special treatment. Basically, you pile up the waste matter in layers, keep it slightly damp, and stir it every few days. After some months you have compost, or material to use in a potting mix or to spread in the vegetable or flower garden. There are a number of simple ways to get this done. I have tried many ways during my life, and I have found the best, and fastest, way is by using a compost tumbler. These can be purchased ready-made and come in several sizes. Some manufacturers send out a video of the tumblers. Beware! They look easy to turn. I feel sure they must have shown elderly people turning empty tumblers, as they turn them so easily. So, unless you have a tremendous amount of material, a smaller version may be easier to operate. They need to be on a level patch of ground.

Good, sweet compost is ready in less than three weeks in warmer weather, but takes longer during the cooler months.

Making ‘garden gold'

Load up the tumbler with several shovels of nitrogen material such as horse, goat or chicken manure and hay, alternating with carbon material such as leaves, straw, small twigs and prunings. Ideally run the carbon material through a shredder first to chip up the larger pieces. The proportions of nitrogen to carbon are important and this depends upon the type of each you have available. Usually it's about one part nitrogen to three to four parts carbon. Instructions, which come with some manufactured composting equipment, list how much of each type you need. Otherwise, your local University of Arizona Co-operative Extension Office may be able to help. The tumbler needs to be full, or nearly full -- check the manufacturer's instructions as they vary depending upon the size of the tumbler. Dampen each layer as you load it, and check moisture while the load is "cooking." If it seems too dry, add more water. Then all you have to do is turn the tumbler, say, seven rotations of the drum, every morning for two or three weeks or until done. Turning the tumbler drum aerates the "mix" enabling the microbes to reach all the material awaiting decomposition activity.

A thermometer should be used to test the temperature as the material decomposes. Different microorganisms work at different temperatures. The psychrophiles like it cool, so start the decomposition process in the upper 20s Fahrenheit (F) by digesting the carbon particles and starting the rise in temperature. When it reaches about 70 degrees F, the mesophilic bacteria take care of most of the decomposition. This process raises the temperature even more and some out-gassing (aroma) occurs. When it gets above 100 degrees F the thermophilic bacteria continue raising the temperature even higher. Three days at 155 degrees F kills disease-causing organisms and seeds. In hot weather, 155 degrees F should be reached in two or three days and the mixture will be "steaming." It may take a little practice to keep the right amount of moisture in the mix, but that's the way we learn. Once the temperature of the mix has dropped to about 90 degrees F (it may be 100 degrees F or more in a very hot summer), the compost is ready for use. Test the results by putting a sample into a plastic bag and seal it. Open a week or so later. It should be crumbly and sweet smelling. Then you'll have your own homemade "garden gold."

Alternatives to the compost tumblers are bins. You would need to check these out at garden centers, as they vary. Or you can make your own bins with boards held in place by T-posts. They may be U-shaped, with or without movable partitions, to enable you to spade the decomposing compost from one bin to another every week or so. Again, it is better to put small, chipped up pieces of material into your bins, otherwise you will find banana skins, for example, still whole when other material has broken down.

Replacement trees and shrubs

The vagaries of this past summer's weather have left some trees and shrubs dead, unexpectedly. If you have some spaces to fill with replacements, think "firewise." Think -- low resin content, low water needs, slow growing, high moisture content, fire resistance. All of these attributes do not apply to one plant necessarily, but a combination of some of these will be an asset to creating a sustainable and firewise planting.

The quaking aspen is a great favorite and can usually re-establish itself after a fire. The aspen is not the easiest tree to grow, however, it can be considered for elevations above 6,000 feet, in shady spots where water is readily available.

At the 4,000- to 6,000-foot elevation, low-water-needs trees include Celtis reticulata, the netleaf hackberry, which does well in full sun. It has a mature height of 20 feet.

Chilopsis linearis, the desert-willow, comes in a variety of flower colors and is fine up to 5,000 feet on little water once established.

Note that all transplanted trees, even drought-tolerant ones, need regular watering for their first year or two while they develop new roots and become established.

Other low-water users are the Robinias -- the New Mexico locust and the black locust, both good either in sun or partial shade. The black locust, Robinia pseudoacacia, may reach 75 feet, so it is too big for small gardens or near your house.

Among shrubs, there are many to choose from with low-water needs. If you have the space, consider the hardy cholla (choy-aahs). Yes, they are prickly but some put on spectacular displays in April/May with flowers from cream through yellow, orange, pinks, reds and vermilion. Many chollas are hardy and can be found up to the 7,000-foot elevation.

If you need to replace a focal plant, some agaves are fine in full sun, with low-water needs. Agave parryi and its many varieties make most attractive compact rosettes of grey with dark tipped leaves. The service berry, Amelanchier alnifolia, loves sun and low water, and maxes out at a mere 15 feet in height. A low-growing salt brush, Atriplex canescens, does well in full sun.

Crabapples, Malus spp., give spring color, provided spring frosts don't freeze their buds. They, too, can take full sun, with little water. Some berberis do well too when you need a small, colorful shrub. Mountain mahogany, particularly the dwarf form, Cercocarpus intricatus, prefers an elevation of 5,000 feet upward and needs very little water.

How about some beargrass, Nolina microcarpa, and weave your own baskets from its leaves? Beargrass is happy in full sun and, apart from its flower stem, stays less than 3 feet high. There's a good choice of hardy Yuccas from which to select a focal plant for your flower garden or native area.

Make a point of visiting your local plant nurseries at every season. They are not likely to sell plants that don't grow well in our area. Then you will see which plants are flowering at which time of year.

Health corner

When did you last have a tetanus shot? If you are a gardener who gets his or her hands in the dirt, then it is advisable to keep your tetanus shots up to date.

Although I've not experienced it, it is said that tetanus is a nasty way to die.

In your garden, your hands may be in contact with manure, fertilizers and other chemicals that might get into any scratch or cut you may have. If you are like me, you will usually have plenty of cuts and scrapes. I work outside a lot with my plants and animals, and there's usually a lot of manure around.

Contact Carol Clapp at

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