Yankton Transfer Station compost is made from ingredients such as grass clippings, garden and yard plant material, leaves, old Halloween pumpkins and fallen apples, according to Adam Haberman and Cory Potts.

Adam Haberman is the public works director for the City of Yankton and Cory Potts is the manager at the Yankton Transfer Station where the compost is made.

“It’s free of charge for residents to take yard and garden plant material to the Transfer Station that goes into a pile,” Haberman said.  “As the pile gets bigger, our crew will haul the material to the compost pad where it’s placed in rows. We monitor the material in the rows and check temperatures and adequate moisture. We have a compost turner that we take down the row. Basically, it turns and fluffs the material to get oxygen back into it for composting to continue to break down the plant material. Once rows are done, we screen out debris such as sticks and foreign matter and put it in a pile where residents can help themselves to the compost.”

How long it takes to decompose plant material into compost, depends on materials in the rows, kinds of plant material and size of pieces. Sometimes more grass clippings are needed with leaves. Cory Potts is in charge of making compost year-round at the Yankton Transfer Station. The pile stays warm in winter; the composting process slows down, but it continues.

“When moisture and oxygen from turning piles is right, bacteria and fungi work, and you aim for 120 degrees to 140 degrees F in a row,” Potts said. “We keep mixing rows until we don’t get the high temperatures any more for a couple of weeks or so. Then we know it’s done.” High temperatures kill the weed seeds.

The city has a win-win with composting. The huge pile of plant waste becomes a small pile of compost that the city uses in street and landscape projects. There’s plenty, so it’s also free for residents to bring shovels, buckets or a pickup truck and load compost to begin amending soil in the flowerbed at home.

Compost at Home

You can relate to this process. You mow the lawn. You pile the grass clippings. When you move the pile, you feel the heat from decomposition that is already occurring inside the pile.

Are the steps the city uses to make compost like your backyard composting? You need a tub of grass clippings for two tubs of leaves. You run over the leaves with a lawn mower to make small pieces that decompose faster. You put clippings and leaves in a pile with some soil and a scoop of compost to kick start the process and add water to wet the pile. You don’t put shiny paper, sawdust or pine needles in the pile because these materials take too long to decompose. You don’t include animal waste, as that leads to other issues. You turn the pile and add water so the pile doesn’t dry out. You know that decomposition occurs because the inside of the pile is hot. If the bacteria and fungi don’t break down the plant material completely, you add more green and brown and compost and keep the pile high and turn it until what remains is gray granules as in the photo. This is compost.

See the basics for yourself at “How to Compost” produced by Tagawa Gardens at the website www.plantalk.org.

What Can Go Wrong with Free Compost?

Slackers, like this writer, who make compost at home, may find mummified remains if they forget to keep the pile moist in the heat of summer or partially composted if they forgot to turn the pile for a month. Partially composted plant material needs to be mixed with more green and brown and a little compost to complete the process.  Not to be used, as is. High temperatures in the process kill weed seeds. Monitoring temperature to make sure the high temperatures were achieved long enough to complete the process is important.

Some licensed agriculture and lawn services use persistent broadleaf herbicides that have the clopyralid ingredient. It remains active longer than standard herbicides. It halts the composting process and may persist as an herbicide if the compost is used with plants or seeds. It is possible that this residue can be found in city compost. The city of Omaha composts their plant material and tests for the presence of clopyralids. Of course, quality control measures can go wrong too.

Another step Omaha takes to make the likelihood of herbicide residue issues in compost less likely, is that they age the compost a year before sharing it with the public. A conservative resident could age the Yankton city compost a year before using it as a precautionary step.

What is Compost, Anyway?

Compost is dubbed “black gold” by those who amend their flowerbeds with it for years. Master Gardeners had a bucket of compost at their recent conference as a silent auction bid item! It contains a little Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium like fertilizers, but it is so much more than the temporary boost for plants that fertilizers supply.

Compost is a soil additive, that when mixed with topsoil, supplies humus (organic matter), and nutrients in a form plants can easily use. Compost, when applied correctly, adds to root and plant growth and disease resistance. Over time, compost improves soil tilth. Clay soil density is decreased. Water-holding capacity in sandy soil is increased. Compost encourages soil microorganisms. It amends (improves) the soil. The process of composting occurs naturally and slowly in the forest floor under the layer of leaves and beneath crumbling tree stumps.

Whether in the backyard or at Yankton Transfer Station, adding green and brown ingredients, a little compost and topsoil with water and turning the pile, supply bacteria and fungi what they require to speed up the natural process of decomposition that results in compost.

So why not just spread a lot of this free city or homemade compost on your flowerbed and plant something in it? Used alone, not mixed with at least two parts topsoil, the ammonium in compost inhibits seed germination. Compost alone is alkaline, with pH as high as 8.3. Soils in the region are commonly alkaline already, and some plants don’t grow well in higher pH soil. The benefits of compost are lost if not combined with at least two parts topsoil. Some information about how Omaha recommends their compost to be applied, is found on their website at www.Omagro.com

Gardeners put a lot of time and effort into starting plants and finding quality plants, installing them and caring for them. Amending flowerbeds to add organic matter and nutrients beneficial to growing plants is another step. Mixing a little compost with topsoil is one way of improving the soil over time. The practice of conservative, informed trials for home gardening may apply to composting, as well.

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