Put That Waste to Use by Composting

Cathy Wood thought she had mastered the art of gardening. She was a stay-at-home mom who made plenty of time to tend to her plants.

“I started gardening like crazy. It was me and the kids, and it was great fun,” she said. “I thought I was really good. Things were blooming 10 times bigger. I thought it was me. I thought it was what I was doing.”

But that was in Flatonia, a small city about an hour southeast of Austin. When the native Austinite moved back home years later and had to plant in rocky, limestone-laden ground, she realized she wasn’t quite the green thumb she had thought.

“I realized that it was luck, and it was soil,” she said.

Now Wood, a master gardener, teaches a composting class for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.

“If you don’t have the right soil, you can’t do anything,” she told her class recently.

For many people new to Austin or new to gardening, planting a robust garden in Austin’s minimal soil can be a challenge. The city is built mostly on rock and clay, leaving it up to homeowners to purchase nutrient-rich soil — or create it with their yard trimmings and organic kitchen waste.

The problem, Wood explained, is that many fertilizers provide more plant-boosting nitrogen than the plants can use. The excess runs off and ends up in local creeks and streams, which has ends up robbing water of oxygen that fish and other wildlife need.

The solution: Compost.

How it Works

You can get as simple or complicated as you’d like in the compost world. Build your own three-stage bin out of treated wood — like this one. Or simply swing by a retailer to purchase a compost tumbler or prefabricated bin, like these.

Generally, the compost just needs to be turned every three to six days. In short time, the decomposing organic material becomes a rich mix of soil that you can spread on your lawn or load into plant beds.

The plants take what they need, and there isn’t any significant nitrogen runoff to worry about.

“Compost happens,” Wood said. “It’s a natural process. There is no waste in nature.”

Folks can put fruit, vegetables, coffee grounds, egg shells, grass clippings, leaves and other yard waste into a composting bin. Just don’t put any meat, oils, dairy, grease or related byproducts in there.

Done properly, the compost will have an earthy organic smell — no foul odor.

City of Austin Offers Rebates

Most Austin residents can qualify for a $75 rebate for starting a composting system. Learn more about the rebate program here.

Composting reduces the amount of trash in landfills, which produce methane, a primary greenhouse gas. Roughly 30 percent of trash is compostable, Wood said.

Austin already has a curbside composting pilot program that serves about 8,000 people in a few neighborhoods, such as Maple Run in southeast Austin and Crestview in north-central Austin.

Because industrial-scale composting produces much more organic heat, which kills bacteria, curbside composters can toss things like meat and other mixed food waste into the city’s bins.