Spring weather and preparation for planting may have many Waco-area gardeners looking down so plants will grow up.

The powerful but humble ingredient some of them see is compost, decomposed organic matter that boosters say provides nutrients, improves soil and encourages recycling in a way that few fertilizers or soil additives can match.

“Compost is one of the areas that everyone in agriculture can agree upon,” said Patrick Lillard, director of education for World Hunger Relief Inc., which maintains a small farm on Spring Lake Road. “It’s a multivitamin for the soil.”

Compost can solve a variety of soil issues, McLennan County Master Gardener Jim Seale said.

“Its advantages are it improves the soil,” Seale said. “If (the soil) is sandy, it helps it hold water. If it’s clayey, it can loosen it up and in a drought it can help hold water. Plants love compost. If you plant anything in compost, they love it.”

The drawbacks: Compost costs more than manure and some fertilizers and is bulky to move and apply. Making it requires attention to the proper mix of materials providing nitrogen, usually green plants; and carbon, brown and dry plants; temperature monitoring and occasional watering.

Bagged commercial compost can be found at most local garden centers, nurseries and big box stores, but Waco gardeners also can find locally produced compost at farmers markets, through community organizations, or, with minimal know-how and enough space, their own compost piles.

Urban Reap, Mission Waco Renewable Energy and Agriculture Project, runs an industrial composter behind the Jubilee Market grocery store off North 15th Street, recycling wilted or damaged produce from Jubilee Market and used coffee grounds from nearby World Cup Cafe as raw materials supplemented by food waste contributed by volunteers.

The machine can turn 160 to 200 pounds of compost at a time with the finished product sold at the grocery store and periodically at the Waco Downtown Farmers Market. It is also sold at a $20 annual subscription for volunteers who contribute food waste in collection buckets provided by Urban Reap.

While the end result aids growing, the program also seeks to make people more aware of wasteful food habits, Urban Reap director Dan Hiatt said. Discarded food being recycled into compost means less food dumped into the city landfill, Hiatt said.

World Hunger Relief once sold compost that it made on site, but changes in the farm’s operations have shifted to commercial organic compost and turkey litter made and sold by Clifton-based Dr. Gobbler, in quantities for large scale farming, Lillard said.

Using a rule of thumb of 3 inches of compost as ground cover translates into about 10 tons of compost per acre for the World Hunger Farm, with decomposition releasing half of the compost’s nutrients into the soil in the first year.

Fertilizers provide the nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous needed for crop growth, delivered faster than compost but requiring more frequent application. Compost is slower, but provides micronutrients that can help lead to more nutritious food, Lillard said.

Donna Nickerson, owner and manager Da’ Shack Farmers Market, grows her produce organically when she can and maintains a compost pile near Da’ Shack’s gardens, selling finished compost to her customers.

The leaves, stems, sticks and burrs left after cotton has its seeds removed find a second life in compost at the Birome Cotton Gin in Hill County. The gin, which services cotton growers in about a 60-mile radius, takes the litter left from ginning, piles it high and composts it, reselling the end product to landscapers and growers.

“We’re the only ones in this area that compost cotton,” manager Ryan Janek said.

Several gins near Lubbock, in the cotton-growing Panhandle, compost their leftovers from ginning, Janek said.

Each cotton season brings new material for composting, but it takes about six months to a year to decompose fully, he said.

Bonnie’s Greenhouse sells the Birome cotton compost locally, and Magnolia Market at the Silos previously used it in its gardens.

“There were some who didn’t think it fit the aesthetic over there,” Janek said. “It didn’t smell bad, but it did smell like compost.”

Local high schools have found Birome compost useful in past years, with Reicher Catholic High School fertilizing its football field with it while Midway High School ROTC selling bags of it as a fundraiser.

Keep Waco Beautiful sells compost, mulch and topsoil as an annual fundraiser, and its next sale is scheduled from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. April 6 near the Waco Downtown Farmers Market at Fifth Street and Washington Avenue. The organization recently changed its supplier to Living Earth, whose new plant at 2508 Marlin Highway outside Waco cut Keep Waco Beautiful’s material transportation costs considerably, director Ashley Millerd said.

Though Living Earth’s Waco location serves as a distribution point for the statewide gardening supply chain, it will eventually accept brush and other organic material for composting, site manager Cecil Daughtrey said.

Living Earth runs 26 locations across the state, manufacturing mulch, compost and landscaping materials in bulk and high-volume bag sales, often in custom blends, Daughtrey said. Composting centers outside Houston and Dallas create much of Living Earth’s compost, but the Waco site would accept brush and other organic material otherwise dumped as trash.

“Up until we got here, it was all going to the landfill,” he said.

Master Gardener Seale said he tends a 60-foot by 20-foot garden at his Hewitt home, complete with compost pile. But many gardeners prefer to buy compost rather than make it themselves.

“(Compost piles) usually are ugly, and people don’t want them,” he said.

Wherever the material comes from, growing with compost pays dividends, but it requires attention and a little sweat, Seale said.

“It’s going to be more work,” he said. “You can’t get around that.”

Tribune-Herald entertainment editor

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