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Keep Your Credit Cards Out of the Compost!


You Bet Your Garden
Question of the Week © 2018 Mike McGrath

Note: Hundreds of Mike's informative articles are available (in alphabetical order!) right here at the Gardens Alive website. To find Mike's answers to your specific garden problem, Click here and find your topic (like Weeds, Worms, Rhododendrons...) in our complete alphabetical archive of Questions of the Week.

Keep Your Credit Cards Out of the Compost!

Q. I was just watching a "Florabest Lawnmower" video at the Facebook page for "The English Garden Magazine"; and the host used grass clippings and shredded paper 'to make a quick compost'. I know you always recommend mulching grass back into the lawn, but there have been times when my grass grew so fast and tall that I needed to bag it. I only have two small trees, so there are no dried leaves for me to rake up in the fall and use. Is it okay to add shredded copier paper and credit card advertisements to my compost pile? I compost a lot of 'green' veggie waste and egg shells.

--- Judy in Columbus, New Jersey (10 miles south of Trenton)

A. This is why I called my Ted Talk on this subject "Everything You Know About Composting is Wrong"; almost a million views—you can watch and put us over the top!)

Now, the video she refers to looks more like an infomercial than an article. No matter what, the guy in it doesn't know how to cut a lawn, mulch, or make compost….

(Other than that….)

He poo-poos using the overpriced mower he's hawking in its mulching setting and instead gets really excited about collecting the clippings and using them unwisely. First, he tosses a huge amount of the fresh wet green clippings up against the trunk of a tiny, soon-to-be-dead tree and calls it 'mulching'. Then he pours the rest of the clippings on top of what looks like shredded office copy paper and calls it a great way to make easy compost. He doesn't even mix it together.

The man should not be allowed out of doors. We're lucky he didn't mow his foot.

For starters, you're supposed to always mulch your clippings back into your lawn because those clips are 10% nitrogen, which is the perfect lawn food. Every time you mulch them back into the lawn they give it a gentle feeding. Every time you take them away, you starve the lawn of its natural food. Always mulch your clippings, give your (cool-season) lawn (of bluegrass and/or fescue) a gentle feeding in the Spring and a bigger one in the late summer and a beautiful lawn you will have! (Feed warm-season grasses in the summer.)

Oh—but what about her 'my grass is too tall'…eh, eh…

"Excuse"? That's called an excuse. And excuses are what you make when you didn't do something right to begin with. A dedicated mulching mower—that's one with a sealed deck and a super-sharp blade—can take almost any height of grass and return it to the turf in the form of a pulverized powder because it keeps cutting and re-cutting the blades of grass inside that sealed deck. I know, because I have mowed really tall grass with my 15-year-old electric dedicated mulching mower (purchased for something below $200 at a big box store) and although it audibly complains when the grass is knee-high, there are no visible clippings when I'm done.

What did the guy in the video's clippings look like?

Longer than my hair in college. The lawn he was cutting was fairly short to begin with, but the clippings were huge. One hopes that the mulching function would have done a better job, but it sure looked to me like he was just trying to sell a cheap mower for a steep price.

And then there's the issue of herbicides. If the lawn he cut was treated with conventional herbicides, those persistent weed-killing chemicals would certainly have killed that little tree. And the compost he claimed he was making would have been deadly to non-grass plants as well.

Luckily, I don't think any kind of compost was going to be made. That big pile of wet grass would have just gotten all stinky and slimy on top of the paper.

And, as we always warn people, there's no nutrition in paper, so even if he mixed it in enough to make 'compost', and even if the clippings weren't treated, the resulting material wouldn't have much nutrition for plants—if any at all. There's nothing for plants in shredded paper, and most—if not all—of the nitrogen in the clippings would just off gas into the air. And our listener asks about using junk mail credit card ads; so now we're talking about slick coated paper, cellophane envelope windows and shredded plastic credit cards. Yuck!

And her veggie waste and eggshells aren't making good compost either. You need the majority of a pile or bin to contain 'dry brown' materials like shredded leaves—or other 'browns' like last year's corn or sunflower stalks.

If she truly has no access to leaves, she should get a worm bin and run her kitchen waste through that. (I love my Worm Tower! The stackable trays make it easy to tell when your finished worm castings are…well, finished! I can't imagine how you would try and handle the contents of one big bin; worm condos are the best—and they have a small footprint!)*

*not paid or provoked to say that; I really do love my Worm Tower. My only regret is that I waited years to get one! And I love my wormies; they're so cute!

Anyway, big piles of garbage outdoors are just going to attract flies and vermin. AND she almost certainly does have access to fall leaves in New Jersey!

Ask neighbors for a couple of bags apiece or rake them up at a public park or schoolyard—or scavenge them from the curb when foolish people throw them away. Leaves are abundant in her area. Oh—and remember when I spoke in Cortez Colorado last month?

I stayed on a ranch run by an intrepid young gardener—hello, Jessica!—who had moved there recently from Oklahoma City. There are few 'dry brown' materials in SW Colorado, so when Jess went back to Oklahoma to visit friends and family a few weeks ago she sent me a photo of her driving back in a pickup truck and trailer, both filled with big plastic trash bags full of leaves.

Where did she find leaves at this time of year???

She scavenged the woods. All somebody in Jersey has to do is scavenge the neighborhood. Leave no leaf unturned!

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