Yard Waste Makes Great Mulch and Compost

Reader Contribution by Micki Brown

Every year I have some wintertime yard chores to do, which includes pruning a few branches from the numerous trees on my half-acre property. Most of the time it consists of minor pruning of a few fruit trees and some butterfly bushes. After running these trimmings through my chipper/shredder, they make a great addition to my compost bins. Sometimes, like this year, I did some major pruning of not only the fruit trees and butterfly bushes, but also some olive, silk, and assorted pine trees – way too much for my compost bins. Luckily, I also have a need for mulch – especially for covering the pathways in in one of my raised-bed garden areas. Here are two of the ways I recycle my yard waste into useful items for my garden.

Chipping and Shredding

When I was done pruning everything over the winter, I ended up with a very large pile of branches to chip/shred into usable mulch. I kept getting side-tracked with other things to do and finally got around to ridding my yard of this huge pile just a couple of weeks ago. My husband was getting concerned that the city’s code enforcement folks might come after us for a fire hazard. We pulled the Troy-Bilt chipper/shredder out of the shed, filled up the fuel tank, put on our safety goggles and gloves, and started it up – it only took a couple of pulls after being stored for over a year.

It took us a few hours over the course of two days to run all of the waste materials though the noisy machine. We had a few branches that were too big for the chipper/shredder’s 2-inch diameter maximum. Those branches we cut to length for use in the fireplace next winter. The end result was several bags of beautiful mulch for a 2-inch thick layer on my garden pathways – and it was free!


Adding organic material to the soil in the form of compost is great for healthier veggies, flowers, shrubs, and trees. You can buy compost at nurseries and garden centers, but why not make it yourself? For the most part, the ingredients can be found right in your own kitchen and yard – especially those pruned branches, fallen leaves, grass clippings, and chicken manure (if you happen to have chickens like I do).

Several years ago, I participated in a Master Composter training program held by the Mojave Desert & Mountain Recycling Authority/Master Composters. Upon completion of the program, I became a certified Master Composter. Included in the experience was a promise to pass along what I learned to other residents of Southern California’s High Desert region and beyond.

Composting is nature’s way of recycling plant materials into a product that can be used to enrich the soil and nourish plants. By adding compost, sandy soils retain water better, heavy soils are loosened and drainage is improved, and plant health is improved. Composting reduces the amount of waste discarded into the trash, thus sending less waste to landfills.

Composting is partly art and partly science. Compost piles are actually microbial farms – bacteria are the most numerous decomposers and are the first to break down plant tissues. Later, fungi, protozoans, centipedes, millipedes, beetles, earthworms and others join in to do their part. Anything that grows is potential food for these decomposers. They use carbon from leaves and woody waste, and nitrogen from items like grass, weeds, manures, and fruit and vegetable waste from the kitchen.

Materials containing higher carbon content are considered “browns,” while materials with higher nitrogen content are considered “greens.” Recipes for the best compost can vary, but a good rule-of-thumb is a mix of 50-percent greens and 50-percent browns by volume.

Green materials include fresh weeds and plants, green prunings, grass clippings, horse, cow, chicken and rabbit manures, and fruit and vegetable trimmings.

Brown materials include fallen leaves, dry weeds and grass, chopped prunings and twigs (such as those I used for my garden mulch), wood chips, hay or straw, and cold wood ashes.

Other materials that can be composted include egg shells, old flower bouquets, coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, paper towels, napkins and newspaper – I only add paper products that are natural and not bleached, and newspapers that use soy-based ink.

Materials that should not be used in composting include oleander bushes, tamarisk/salt cedar, invasive weeds, meat, fish, dairy products, bones, fats, bread, large pieces of wood, pressure-treated wood, barbecue ashes, dog or cat wastes,  and materials with spines or thorns such as rose branches and cactus.

The more surface area the microorganisms have to work on, the faster the materials will decompose, so it’s a good idea to run large pieces of waste such as branches through a chipping or shredding process before adding them to the compost pile. The microbes also need moisture and air. The best moisture level for the microbes and for faster composting should be that of a wrung out sponge. It is usually necessary to occasionally add water to the compost pile. It should also be turned periodically to get more air into the center. About once a week, I add water to my compost bins. I turn it with a pitch fork whenever I add new materials, which is at least a couple times a week. Most of the contents I add are kitchen waste, chicken manure, wood shavings, straw, leaves and pine needles, and occasionally wood chips from pruning my trees.

Large compost piles will insulate themselves and hold the heat given off by the microbes. The pile’s center is warmer than its edges. The ideal compost pile is about 3-feet by 3-feet by 3-feet. Smaller piles have trouble retaining heat, while larger piles don’t allow enough air into the center. Of course these proportions are only important for making compost quickly. Slower composting requires no exact proportions.

There are a number of ways to compost – some take less time and effort, some take more. The main things to consider are how much time you have to spend managing the pile, how much green waste your yard or kitchen generates, and how quickly you want the finished product.  Two common methods include holding units and turning units. Each method has its own set of advantages and disadvantages.

Holding units are the “no fuss” method where you add as you go. You can build or purchase a bin approximately 3-feet square, or just start a pile. Fill it up as materials become available – when it’s full, start another pile – water and turn occasionally. I use two vented black bins, called Earth Machines, which have a removable lid on the top, and a door at the bottom for removing the finished product at the bottom of the pile. I also use two “Compost Orbs,” which I purchased because they were supposed to be easy to roll them to where ever I needed them. They roll nicely when empty, or full of dry leaves, but not when they are full of heavy moist compost. I like my Earth Machines better. There are many models of compost bins available, check them out and see what works best for you.

Turning units are the “active pile” method. These are usually a series of three or more units that allow garden wastes to be turned on a regular schedule. These are more appropriate for gardeners with a larger volume of waste, or for those who want to produce compost faster. Each bin should be about one cubic yard in size. Fill one bin by layering green materials with brown. Water the piles as you add layers. The pile will probably heat up – when it cools after a few days, turn the pile into an empty bin and water again, continue until the pile no longer heats up and materials are decomposed.

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