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Spring Yard Cleanup: Compost Waste

By Carl Wilson, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension agent, horticulture, Denver County

One of the first yard tasks of the growing season is to clean up garden debris left from last year. This generally includes leaves blown between shrubs and into corners of the yard. Other materials are dry, matted grass raked up from shaded north exposures where snow has lain for long periods. Add this to flower and vegetable plant remains from last year's gardening, as well as some woody tree and shrub prunings. These wastes cleaned up from many yards, adds up to a heavy load in our landfills.

Denver Solid Waste Management finds that one-third to one-half of residential waste collection is plant yard waste, depending on the time of year. This amounts to thousands of tons per year going into landfills. What use can be made of this natural resource?

Denver and other communities have started fall leaf collection efforts. Denver Recycles reports that the City collected some 350 tons of leaves last fall. This part of our yard wastes are composted and sold as broken-down organic materials for soil improvement. It may make more sense to do this than to mine peat and transport it for gardeners to use as a soil amendment. Soil amendments are mixed into soil to break up our heavy clays and retain moisture in sands for better plant growth. Nationally, only a few communities, such as Oceanside, California, are collecting yard plant wastes for composting year-round.

Where does this leave you with your yard wastes from spring clean-up? In Colorado, the alternative to filling landfills is to compost in your backyard. The best, most environmentally friendly way to handle plant wastes from spring yard cleanup is to bag and save them for a few weeks. This first spring clean-up of the year provides a lot of "browns" (dried plant materials, such as leaves and dead grass) but not many "greens" (fresh plant material). Equal amounts of both type of yard wastes are needed for good composting.

If you save these first "brown" wastes of spring for a few weeks, the spring flush of "green" yard wastes from lawn mowing and spring flower deadheading soon will be upon us. By then, composters will be looking for "browns" to add to the compost mix. Saving the first "brown" plant wastes of spring makes sense if you are beginning to compost in your yard this year.

Beginning composters in Colorado can obtain specific guidelines to composting by contacting their county Colorado State University Cooperative Extension office. Ask for a fact sheet titled "Composting Yard Wastes."

Photograph courtesy of Judy Sedbrook.

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Date last revised: 01/05/2010