River-Friendly Landscaping Part 6: Don’t Trash the Truckee Meadows

Did you know that approximately half of what Truckee Meadows residents send to the landfill in the summer months is organic material? That’s about 2,500 tons (or 350 elephants) of yard waste and kitchen scraps going to our local landfill every day! 

Instead of trashing these materials, which creates transportation emissions (contributing to air pollution and climate change) and takes up landfill space (decreasing land conservation), we can reduce unnecessary waste, improve soils, save money, and keep the Truckee River clean – all at the same time! In this, the sixth of our River-Friendly Landscaping series, we’ll show you how.

So what’s the magic solution to this trashy problem? Composting!

And what’s composting?

Composting takes organic material and decomposes it into an organic fertilizer and soil amendment. It’s pretty much mimicking the natural processes occurring on forest floors when leaves and other organic materials accumulate, break down, and decompose into humus, forming the “O” soil horizon

How does compost improve soils?

Compost increases soil organic matter, which increases the soil’s water holding capacity – super important in our arid climate. If we want to conserve water (and keep more of it in the river), then improving our soils’ ability to hold onto moisture is crucial. And, Northern Nevada soils typically don’t have much organic matter to start with because the climate doesn’t provide enough precipitation for dense vegetation, thus there aren’t a lot of organic materials, like leaves, falling onto the soil surface. Plus, Northern Nevada soils are very young, geologically speaking, and haven’t had time to build up and develop a healthy soil profile with distinct horizons. Often, you’ll see soil only an inch or two deep, right on top of bedrock (i.e. parent material).

How does it save money?

Adding compost helps your soil retain moisture, which should help you cut back on water use and save on your water bills in the summer months. Composting at home also produces free fertilizers to use in your yard, which means less money spent on synthetic fertilizers. 

How does it keep the Truckee River clean?

Conveniently, compost’s money-savings translate into benefits for water quality – it’s a win-win for your wallet and the river! Since compost works like a sponge in the soil retaining moisture and requiring less watering, there’s less surface runoff carrying non-point source pollution into the river. Compost also adds organic slow-release fertilizers into the soil, feeding your plants and keeping them healthy, meaning you won’t have as much need for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides (remember these are non-point source pollutants).

How do I make this magical stuff?

Well, it’s pretty simple. You just need four ingredients:

  1. Browns (i.e. items high in carbon) – dried leaves, chipped up twigs and shredded newspaper
  2. Greens (i.e. items high in nitrogen) – green leaves, fresh grass clippings and food scraps (sans dairy and meat and a few other items
  3. Water – mix in enough to make the mixture moist, like a damp sponge
  4. Air – this is where the stirring comes in (see below).

And then follow a few easy steps:

Step 1: Put the ingredients in a container, adding enough water to make it moist but not soggy

Step 2: Stir with a shovel, hoe or pitchfork

Step 3: Wait

Simple, right? Well, yes but here’s a few tips to clarify common questions.

What kind of container should I use? – When it comes to choosing a container, there are so many options. Just do some Googling to find what works for you and don’t feel like you have to buy something fancy. There are lots of DIY options that are inexpensive and made from recycled materials. To avoid attracting pests like mice and raccoons, make sure you have a secure lid and small air holes. 

How often should I stir and add water? – The frequency is not super important, but in general, the more often you stir and check for the correct moisture levels, the faster your pile will turn into finished compost. However, rather than making composting into a time-consuming art, it’s probably easiest to just stir it up and add some water every time you have new materials to add to the pile. 

How long before I get finished compost that’s ready to put in the garden? – Usually a couple of months, but it really depends on the weather (things slow down in the winter when it’s cold) and how much you tend to your pile. You’ll know it’s finished when you can’t tell what the original contents were. See, it is magic! Note if you’re continually adding new materials to the pile it will obviously never completely finish. This is why most people have two or more bins that they rotate between so that they can let one completely finish (i.e. decompose) while they work on a new batch in another bin.

Still not convinced that this is for you? Well, if you still want to make a difference but don’t want to start your own home composting, Down to Earth Composting provides curbside pickup of your food scraps, does all the composting work for you, and then returns finished compost for you to use.

Resources:

Washoe County: Two Season Waste Composition and Characterization Analysis