Publications (Paul's Blog)

October 3, 2010

A LOAD OF COMPOST

Filed under: Uncategorized — Paul Dowlearn @ 3:30 pm

You can tell when we’ve had a good day at the nursery by looking at the parking lot. There will be many telltale smudges of compost. Compost has become one of our best selling items. When we opened Wichita Valley Nursery some eighteen years ago I had no idea how important compost would become to my bottom line. Now I smile when I head home for the day and see an empty parking lot full of black smudges of spilled compost. A load of compost, my tractor, and the dump trailer are among my favorite things.

We make our own bulk compost at the nursery. We employ three large compost bins made from old pallets and corrugated metal siding. We will have one bin to accept fresh material while the other two are in various stages of decomposition. When a pile is near finished we move it to the final location and mix it in the finished product that we sell and use in our growing operation. As we rotate the bins we’ll always have space for new material from the nursery and landscaping operations. We also encourage our friends in the lawn maintenance biz to bring us their leaves, shrub trimmings, and grass clippings. In spite of this, we are compelled to buy bulk compost from our city landfill to keep up with demand.

About fifteen years ago, Wichita Falls began making compost as part of our landfill operations. This not only made good use of organic waste materials but also saved on landfill space. Now the operation has saved untold thousands (perhaps millions) of dollars worth of landfill space and has also become a profitable commercial operation. Additionally, the city allows some free complimentary compost for the citizens who participate in the organics program. A true win/win situation. Although our city still does not recycle 100% of the organic materials that come into the landfill, they have made some 20 to 25 thousand tons (yearly) of what was once trash into a valuable commodity.

The start up costs to an operation of this size is not cheap so selling this idea to your local city council may be tough. However, if you do the numbers right you will find that the long term savings will offset the cost of labor and machinery in a few years. After that the operation will actually make enough money to pay for itself at which time the taxpayers will be happy and your council members get re-elected. Everybody benefits.

Our city operation has not hurt private enterprise either. Several local contractors (besides us) make their own compost. When they run short they can always go to the landfill and purchase what they need. In addition, because the citizens have begun using the compost from the free giveaway programs, they have learned what a valuable soil amendment and fertilizer it is. Therefore, our local folks buy more commercially available compost. Rather than hurting the local contractors through competition we have seen the exact opposite. The compost business is booming due to greater availability plus the success rates of those who use it.

Yet another positive side effect is the growing popularity of compost reduces fertilizer and chemical use. Healthy landscapes have fewer problems so they require less input. The result is less nitrate and/or toxic runoff that eventually pollutes our water resources. The living compost also helps to detoxify soils that have been polluted. In short, if there is a problem with any soil anywhere, compost can fix it.

“Compost feeds all plants and improves all soils.” That’s a “Dowlearnism” or something I say all the time. At the nursery, we can get any fertilizer, soil additives, or potting mixes at wholesale prices. Yet the mainstay of our operation and our preferred potting soil is compost mixed with local sandy loam soil. Cost effective and nutritious, compost provides all minerals, elements, and living microbes to boot. The day of “sterile” potting soils is over, at least in our nursery….for certain. Since we have switched to compost mixed with native soils, our insect and disease outbreaks have all but ceased, and our customers say that our plants have better livability than those grown in lightweight soil mixes and fertilized with high nitrogen products. We do not use any fertilizer other than compost and compost tea. Results and satisfied customers speak for themselves.

My friend Will Fleming once told me, “You can do 10,000 years of soil improvement in one day with a load of compost and a roto tiller.” I remember reading in an old science textbook that it takes 1,000 years to form one inch of topsoil in Nature. Therefore any planting project should start with an application of compost. All too often, people just buy plants and stick them in the ground then attempt to induce growth with some type of fertilizer or easily applied soil amendment. In my book, that’s doing it the hard way. I can show you landscape projects that are now decades old that have had nothing more than our initial application of compost and the natural recycling of spent leaves and/or hardwood mulch. A little prep work in the beginning will result in much less work in the long run. Wichita Valley simply does not plant any landscape unless we compost it first.

Compost is the miracle product that gardeners have always searched for. Sadly, you will likely never learn this from a TV commercial because the big companies make more money selling “miracle” products in pretty packages. Compost actually does improve drainage in heavy clay or compacted soils. Conversely, compost can also help sandy or gravelly soils retain moisture. Sharply acid or alkaline ph soils are pulled toward neutral by adding compost. Old fashioned NPK fertilizers are one thing…..Compost is everything. You can easily prove this by taking a small part of any lawn, garden, or ornamental planting and fertilize with compost while leaving the rest to whatever products you currently are using. By the end of one growing season, you will see the difference. No need to till the compost under, simply place it on top as a mulch and let Nature do the rest. Easy enough?

If you do not have access to bulk compost in your local area then you should help get an operation started. Your local landfill or Parks & Rec department would be a good place to start planting some ideas. Local sand and gravel companies should also be interested. Whoever hauls topsoil and fill dirt to local building sites can add considerably to their income with compost. All it takes to get started is to find local sources of organic waste, a dump truck, a front end loader, and enough land to accommodate.

The bagged material found at garden centers is great stuff. However that can get expensive for large projects due to all the extra packaging, handling, and shipping costs. Local bulk composting reduces waste, pollution, and creates jobs while adding to your local economy. What a great way to promote a more sustainable and healthier future for your local environment. Composting is recycling at its very best.

In closing I will remind you that the best compost is what you can make for yourself. Small bins and compost tumblers work fine for those with limited space. Composting with worms (vermiculture) is also pretty neat as a space saver. I do all this at the nursery and we are happy to help you get started. Or, if you have a project in the works, come see us or call and I will sell you a load of compost.

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