Friday, February 10, 2012

Make Your Own Compost

Each year millions of tons of leaves, grass clippings, tree limbs, weeds, organic debris and other yard wastes end up in Texas landfills. This volume represents about 20 percent of all trash placed in landfills. It costs Texans over $300 million a year to collect and dispose of yard wastes. Putting these materials to use instead of throwing them away can save money and preserve and protect the environment for all Texans.

What Is Compost?Compost is a part of the natural process of decomposition. Leaves drop from trees. Grass clippings are left on the lawn after mowing.  Living plants die and over time, all of these organic materials break down or decompose. The rich, dark-brown, crumbly, soil-like material that results is called compost. Why Compost?
Organic wastes put back into the landscape in the form of compost can assist in reducing fertilizer applications, conserve water, and decrease the volume of wastes entering landfills. Compost can be used by other living things in the landscape and instead of going to a landfill, these wastes become a valuable resource.
The Composting Process:
Compost can be made out of leaves, grass clippings, vegetable and fruit scraps, coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, wood chips, straw, small twigs and similar materials. Tiny microorganisms do most of the work of breaking down organic materials to form compost. These microorganisms include a wide range of bacteria and fungi. Animals living in the soil also help microorganisms break down organic materials. Worms and pill bugs are examples of soil animals that help change organic waste into compost.
The microorganisms and soil animals that turn organic matter into compost require many of the same nutrients that plants need for growth (particularly nitrogen). Most of these nutrients are derived from the decomposing organic matter. Eventually, these nutrients are returned to the soil, to be used again by trees, grass, and other plants. This is nature’s way of recycling.

Landscape Uses of Compost:
Compost can be used as a mulch or mixed into the soil. Compost provides an almost constant source of free fertilizer and is an excellent soil conditioner. The organic materials in compost help plants grow by loosening the soil and providing improved aeration and drainage. The composition of compost also improves the soils ability to hold water and can reduce the frequency of landscape irrigation. Compost has most of the nutrients plants require for growth and through regular use can greatly reduce the need for chemical fertilizers. This can help limit the potential risk of environmental contamination.
Making Compost:
Making compost can be easy!
Choose a structure and location for making compost. Any type of composting bin will do. Plans for different types of composting bins can be found on Texas A&M University’s Aggie Horticulture web site.
Place kitchen and yard wastes in the composting bin. Chop or shred these organic materials for faster decomposition. Spread soil or "already done" compost over the compost pile. This layer contains microorganisms and soil animals that do the work of composting. It also helps keep the surface from drying out.  
Adjust the moisture of the compost pile. Add dry grass clippings or sawdust to
soggy materials, or add water to a pile that is too dry. The materials should be damp to the touch, but not so wet that drops come out when squeezed.

Allow the pile to "bake". It should heat quickly and reach the desired temperature of 90 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit (32 to 60 degrees Celsius) in four to five days.  Stir or turn the compost as it bakes to speed the decomposition process.  The pile will settle down from its original height. This is a good sign that the organic matter is actively decomposing.

Thoroughly decomposed compost should look like dark crumbly soil mixed with small
pieces of organic material, with a sweet "earthy" smell.

Mix or turning the compost pile every week will speed up the process. Under normal conditions it should be "done," or ready 1-2 months. Compost piles that are not turned generally require 6-12 months to complete the process.

With a little work, you can have a rich, inexpensive fertilizer for your gardens and flowerbeds in no time!

Hypoxylon Canker Affects Stressed Trees

Hypoxylon canker is a fungus that causes cankers and death in hardwood trees. Relatively healthy trees are not invaded by the fungus, but the hypoxylon fungus will readily infect the sapwood of a tree that has been damaged, stressed, or weakened. Natural and man-caused factors that can weaken a tree include defoliation by insects or leaf fungi, saturated soil, fill dirt, soil compaction, excavation in the root zone of the tree, removal of top soil under the tree, disease, herbicide injury, drought, heat, nutrient deficiencies, competition or overcrowding, and other factors. The hypoxylon fungus is considered a weak pathogen in that it is not aggressive enough to invade healthy trees. In addition to the hypoxylon fungus, weakened and stressed trees may become susceptible to a host of other insect and disease pests.
Hypoxylon canker activity usually increases when prolonged drought occurs. When drought stresses trees, the fungus is able to take advantage of these weakened trees. The moisture content of living wood in live, healthy trees is typically high. It is difficult for hypoxylon canker to develop in wood that has a normal moisture content. However, any of the factors listed above could weaken or stress trees causing the moisture content of the wood to reach levels low enough for the hypoxylon fungus to develop. When this happens, the fungus becomes active in the tree and invades and decays the sapwood causing the tree to die.

An early indication that hypoxylon canker may be invading a tree is a noticeable thinning of the crown. This should not be confused with leaf loss due to the autumn season. Also, the crown may exhibit branch dieback. As the fungus develops, small sections of bark will slough from the trunk and branches and collect at the base of the tree. The signs of the fungus are:
• (early stages) light to dark reddish brown to olive green colored crusty fungal (stroma) tissue over the cankered area,
• (later stages) grey surface that eventually flakes off after 6 – 12 months to reveal a dark brown to black crusty material that gives a burnt appearance to the tree. These sometimes have the appearance of solidified tar,
• (advanced stages) the signs of the fungus may first appear as small patches a few inches in length, but will eventually merge to form large strips along the trunk and major limbs of the tree

Once Hypoxylon canker is evident, it is usually too late to try to save the tree. Large portions of
the tree will be dead, reducing the desirability as a landscape specimen. In addition, the structural
integrity of the wood is compromised and the tree becomes hazardous. Trees exhibiting signs and
symptoms of Hypoxylon canker should be carefully inspected and considered for removal. Trees that have died from hypoxylon canker and are located in an area where they could fall on structures, roads, fences, powerlines, etc., should be removed as soon as possible. During removal, it is very dangerous to climb trees killed by hypoxylon canker. Because the fungus decays the wood so rapidly, the tree may not support the weight of a climber. Caution should be exercised when removing a tree effected by hypoxylon canker.

Probably all oak trees are susceptible to hypoxylon canker. In addition, elm, pecan, hickory, sycamore, maple, beech, and other trees may be infected. The fungus spreads by airborn spores that apparently infect trees of any age by colonizing the inner bark. The fungus is known to be present in many healthy trees and can survive for long periods of time in the inner bark without invading the sapwood. As mentioned earlier, when a tree is weakened or stressed, the fungus may then invade the sapwood and become one of several factors that ultimately cause the tree to die.

There is no known control for hypoxylon canker other than maintaining tree vigor. Apparently the spores of this fungus are so common in most areas that removing trees infected with hypoxylon canker is of little value in controlling the spread of the disease. Also, infected fire wood is not considered to be a source of inoculation. The fungus does not kill groups of trees by spreading from tree to tree. There is usually little that can be done to avoid naturally occurring stress factors, but many man-caused stress factors can be avoided. During drought periods, supplemental watering is recommended, if the tree is near a water source. Damage to tree roots around construction areas commonly predisposes a tree to infection by hypoxylon canker.