Composting feeds your lawn and garden — not a landfill

Renee Tomell

If you want to walk in the shoes of our country’s first president, try composting. None other than George Washington was an avid believer in the practice; he kept a diary of what scraps were added daily.

That historical nugget and a similar passion for saving the Earth — in this instance, the soil — are shared by Kay McKeen of Wheaton, Ill. She is founder of the Glen Ellyn, Ill.-based School and Community Assistance for Recycling & Composting Education, or SCARCE.

“Washington saw how colonists would plant fields and in 12 years, very little would come up,” McKeen said. “They’d pack up and move west for fertile soil. He was not leaving Mount Vernon. He wrote letters to estate owners in France (to help) figure out how to keep the soil alive.

“If Washington had time to compost, we can figure it out,” McKeen said.

Thanks to two centuries of composting refinements, the process no longer has to assault the nose. To help people get started, SCARCE recommends an Oregon couple’s 32-page brochure, “Home Composting Made Easy,” as a comprehensive, easy-to-follow, even humorous guide.

It covers the numerous variables: composting systems that range from a pile in the backyard to specialized bins; the amount of care one wants to invest; differing techniques that vary the lag time until compost is ready to add to your soil from three weeks to a year; placement of the compost pile or bin in the yard; and what can and can’t be used, including species of plants that are not beneficial.

The brochure writers offer a reminder: “Composting challenges us to take a little more responsibility as a planetary citizen.”

While one needn’t be a chemist to compost successfully, properly balancing the materials that provide the necessary nitrogen (called “green” in the composting vernacular) and carbon (called “brown”) are part of the composting equation.

McKeen said brown includes materials such as leaves, small twigs and sawdust with no paint. Green includes grass, apple and pear cores, banana and potato peels, lettuce, orange rinds, coffee grounds and tea bags with no staples.

Anne Gachuhi, University of Illinois Extension educator in horticulture in the North Suburban Master Gardener office, says the process of decay becomes a rich natural resource that diverts yard waste and kitchen scraps from landfills.

“You recycle trimmings into something that is useful,” she said. “You don’t have to buy some of these soil conditioners for the garden. It improves the soil fertility and the soil structure. Especially with our clay soil, drainage becomes easier. Over time, (it) enables the soil to hold moisture and reduce all this runoff.”

Using compost as a natural, non-chemical fertilizer boosts the nutrient value of food grown in compost-enriched gardens.

“Nowadays, with the cost of food and driving to the grocery store, more and more people are trying to buy organic and eat more vegetables,” she said, noting SCARCE will offer composting workshops in the fall and has a video available for viewing by appointment (visit

“What better way to accomplish all that? Do something good for the environment, have fun with your family and grow something healthy,” she said. “It’s a  win, win, win to me.”

What is compost?

Compost is decomposed organic material, explains the University of Illinois Extension Service’s Web site at It is produced from materials such as as leaves and kitchen scraps primarily from plants.

The Web site notes compost is the end product of a complex feeding pattern involving hundreds of different organisms, including bacteria, fungi, worms and insects. “What remains after these organisms break down organic materials is the rich, earthy substance your garden will love,” the site says.

Reuse, reduce

- 80 Percent of total residential waste you can divert from landfills by reducing, reusing and recycling.

- 35 Percent you can keep out of landfills by composting alone.

From the brochure “Home Composting Made Easy” by C. Forrest McDowell and Tricia Clark-McDowell, co-directors of Cortesia Sanctuary in Oregon. Visit

Mow solutions

By using a mulching lawnmower on grass and leaves instead of disposing of them, you allow the nutrients they’ve absorbed from the soil to return to the earth as they biodegrade, explains environmental activist Kay McKeen. They also can be turned into compost.

More information

• The University of Illinois Extension Service’s Web site,, offers compost pointers.

• The Web site offers help in choosing bins and what to compost.

• The Chicago Field Museum’s exhibit about soil explores the decay process, worms and all.

• “Home Composting Made Easy,” a brochure by Oregon couple C. Forrest and Tricia Clark-McDowell, co-directors of Cortesia Sanctuary in Oregon. Visit to obtain a copy.

Glen Ellyn News