acreage living February 1999

ISU cooperative extension

In this issue: acreage living home page

 Try a Little Compost?

Shawn Shouseby Shawn Shouse, ISU Extension Field Specialist/Ag Engineering, SW Area Extension Center
Phone: 712-769-2600 - e-mail:

Thinking ahead to warm weather, green grass and growing gardens, now may be a good time to plan ahead for a little composting. Composting is a great way to turn dead plant matter and kitchen vegetable scraps into useful soil conditioner or mulch. The actual work of making compost is done by microorganisms and bugs found in the soil. Your help can be as limited or extensive as you desire.

In technical terms, the recipe for compost includes organic materials with the proper carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, moisture, sufficient temperature, and various soil microorganisms. In terms that people like me can understand, you need some green stuff, some brown stuff, a little water, and some bugs. In actual practice, nature provides all the ingredients for composting. All we do is help to balance the ingredients so the composting occurs as quickly and efficiently as possible.

The workers in the composting process are a host of organisms found on plants and in soil. They include bacteria, fungi, protozoans, centipedes, millipedes, beetles and earthworms. These critters all work together to consume the carbon in the plant materials, using the nitrogen from the plants to make proteins. As they work, the organisms need moisture and oxygen to stay alive. Keeping your compost moist and permeable to air will keep the workers healthy. As the organisms work, they generate heat. Fortunately, the organisms thrive in a warm environment. Maintaining a temperature of 100 to 130 degrees will allow the organisms to work quickly. If the compost is too hot or too cold, some of the organisms will be killed, and the process will slow down. In the end, the workers run out of food and you are left with a mixture of decomposed organic matter and dead microorganisms. The compost looks about like potting soil and has a musty, earthy smell.

making compostIn order to make compost, you need only provide an environment for all the right ingredients to come together. Dead leaves, garden waste, grass clippings and kitchen scraps provide an excellent food source. Most experts recommend not composting meat scraps. Meat will compost, but it may also attract scavengers like rats and opossums - generally unwelcome guests in your back yard. Mixing roughly half green scraps and clippings with half dead leaves or straw will provide a suitable carbon4o-nitrogen ratio. Technically, we want a C:N ratio around 30:1. Grass clippings are about 20:1, and dead leaves are around 60:1. If you run short of green stuff for nitrogen, you can add a little animal manure or nitrogen fertilizer to balance the mix. Table 1 lists the C:N ratio of some other common ingredients.

Table 1. C:N Ratio of Compost Ingredients
Material C:N ratio
Grass clippings 20
Leaves (dry) 60
Vegetable scraps 12
Oat straw 60
Wheat straw 120
Com stalks 70
Corn cobs 100
Laying hen manure 6
Cattle manure 19
Horse manure 30
Swine manure 14
Sawdust 450
Wood chips 600
Source: NRAES-54 On-Farm Composting Handbook

Water and air are important ingredients. Water should be added until the pile feels moist, like a wrung-out sponge. In dry weather, you may need to add water every few days. Stir the compost to keep it fluffy, so air can get into the pile. Chopping the materials into smaller pieces as you stir also helps to speed the composting process by giving the organisms more surface on which to chew. If you use a bin to contain the pile, the sides should be porous to allow air to enter. Without oxygen, a different group of organisms will take over the work, and these anaerobic (without oxygen) organisms make a foul odor! If the compost smells sour, it may have too much water and not enough air.

The size of the compost pile will help to control the temperature. Piles about three feet in length, width and height are big enough to maintain some heat, yet small enough to let air in to the center. Fancy wire or plastic bins work well, but a pile on the ground can do the job. Turning, aerating and watering the pile will speed the process. A well-managed compost pile may be finished in a few weeks. If time is not a priority, left all alone, nature will eventually get the job done. Low-maintenance compost piles generally work in about a year with no help at all. Many composting publications include sketches of various bins you can build to contain your compost pile.

Finished compost is a gardener's best friend. Although yard waste compost has little fertilizer value, it is rich inorganic matter. Adding compost to the soil will increase water holding capacity, encourage microbial activity, and generally improve that wonderful soil quality we call "tilth." Speaking from personal experience, I can't make compost fast enough to keep up with the demand for my wife's flower beds. Compost made from animal manure may have significant crop nutrients. The composting process helps reduce the odor of the manure and stabilize the nitrogen inorganic forms that release to crops more slowly.

Your county ISU Extension office can supply more information on composting in bulletin Pm-683 (Compost for the Garden). The Waste Management Assistance Division of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (515-281-5145) has several resources on composting. For web surfers, try these publications:

Making and Using Compost
Garden Compost
Questions about composting

If your interest includes composting for a farm or large-scale operation, ask about booklet NRAES-54 (On-Farm Composting) or visit with your extension ag engineer.

Composting can help you turn waste materials into valuable soil conditioner. Watching and helping the process along can be run and fulfilling. Give it a try!

go to top of this page


  Newest Ways to Plant Trees

by Eldon Everhart, ISU Extension Field Specialist/Horticulture, Shelby County
Phone: 712-755-3104 - e-mail:

When you plant fruit trees or shade trees this spring, choose a cool, calm, overcast day. Keep the roots covered and don't let them to dry out. Soaking in water is not necessary except when the roots are overly dry. In that case, either return them for a replacement or attempt to revive them by soaking in water for less than 24 hours.

Remove broken, crossed, or dead roots or branches but do no other pruning.

Dig the planting hole as deep as the root system and at least one foot wider than the longest root or the root ball diameter. A wide hole is better than a deep one. You can improve the success of trees planted in poor soil by tilling a larger planting area around each tree.

Planting trees too deep can cause problems. Make sure the bottom of the planting hole is firm, then hold the tree in position with its crown an inch or two above the original planting depth. As you gradually fill the hole, move the plant up and down slightly to filter soil between the roots.

Do not pack the soil in the hole. Do not add peat moss, manure, compost, fertilizer, or any other soil amendments. When the planting hole is three-fourths full, water well, then straighten or raise the plant if it settles. Complete the backfill.

Apply a layer of organic mulch on the surface around each tree about three inches deep and three feet wide but about 12 inches away from the trunk. For larger trees, extend the mulch as far out as the branches spread.

Water no more than once a week with about two gallons of water per tree. Larger trees will need five gallons or more depending on tree size and soil type. When you plant trees this spring, do not apply fertilizer until late fall or early next spring. Research has shown that nitrogen fertilizer can inhibit regeneration of roots.

For more information, consult "Planting Landscape Trees" Pm-422) available at your local county ISU Extension office.

Horticultural Therapy Conference A Horticultural Therapy Conference will be held Wednesday, February 24, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., at the Botanical Center in Des Moines.

Volunteers and employees of health care, rehabilitation, and correction facilities, and anyone who provides home health care is encouraged to attend. Professionals can earn .6 CBU's.

The horticultural therapist from the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum will discuss creating special gardens for special people. She will also conduct a workshop on sensory gardens, including a walking tour of the Botanical Center.

Also included will be breakout sessions and "video tours" of various agencies, programs, and projects; displays from health care agencies and businesses; and a resource table.

The registration fee after February 1 is $65. This includes lunch, refreshment breaks, handouts, and admission to the Botanical Center. Contact your local county ISU Extension office for more information.

go to top of this page


Does My Car Feel Wind Chill?

Shawn Shouseby Shawn Shouse, ISU Extension Field Specialist/Ag Engineering, SW Area Extension Center
Phone: 712-769-2600 - e-mail:

Every winter, as arctic winds sweep the Iowa landscape, I get into a discussion somewhere about wind chill. Sooner or later, somebody will ask if wind chill affects cars. I can't find a wind chill and automotive expert, but here's an engineer's perspective.

Wind chill factors report how cold it feels with the combination of wind and low temperatures. The concept is the same as hoping for a breeze on a hot summer day. A major part of the cooling effect is that the thin layer of warm air surrounding your body is swept away by the wind, forcing your body to give up more heat to warm that thin layer of air again ... and again ... and again. The chilling power of the wind comes not because the wind is cold, but because the wind removes the heat from your body more quickly. The temperature we hear reported is the air temperature at which still air would have the same cooling effect on your body.

So, what about your car? After being exposed for several hours, your car will be no colder with a strong wind than with still conditions But if your car is warmer than the surrounding air, it will lose heat much faster in a strong wind. Once you start your car, it will take longer to warm up. And when you turn off your car, it will cool down more quickly. Come to think of it, this is exactly what we want to happen at the car's radiator, sweeping air across a hot surface to remove heat more quickly.

In summary, if an object is at the outdoor temperature and generating no heat, it will not be affected by the wind. Any object trying to generate heat or maintain a temperature higher than the surrounding air will be affected by the cooling power of the wind.

So, does your car feel wind chill? Now you can decide. By the way, does your house feel wind chill? Hmmm...

go to top of this page


 Adios - Farvel

Concluding a distinguished career of 25 years with ISU Extension, including more than three years as editor of Acreage Living, Dr. Wayne Kobberdahl retired in December, 1998. Communities throughout southwest Iowa and surrounding states have benefited from Wayne's commitment and outstanding talents in leading group processes, identifying needs, and developing community businesses and infrastructure. But beyond all his professional skills, we may miss most his captivating personality and passion for storytelling. As long as your name was not Sven or Lars, you couldn't help but love to just sit and listen to Wayne spin a yam about life in his native North Dakota. But alas, the story of life goes on, and Wayne is on to other chapters. We wish him well.

As for the editorship of Acreage Living, the reins have been handed over to me, Shawn Shouse. I will continue the style and focus of the newsletter with the addition of articles from guest authors located around the state. As always, feel free to offer suggestions or comments on the newsletter by writing or calling me. I look forward to tailoring the newsletter to meet your needs.

Acreage Living is published monthly. For more information, contact your local county ISU Extension Office.
Editor: Shawn Shouse, ISU Extension FS/Ag Engineering, SW Area Extension, 53020 Hitchcock Avenue, Lewis, Iowa, 51544, Ph: 712/769-2600
Layout & Design: Paulette Cambridge, Office Assistant, SW Area Extension, 53020 Hitchcock Avenue, Lewis, Iowa 51544, Ph: 712/769-2600

acreag e living 1999 issues go to top of this page ISU Extension  feedback to Shawn Shouse acreage living home page

...and justice for all.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) prohibits discrimination in all its programs and activities on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender, religion, age, disability, political beliefs, sexual orientation, and marital or family status. (Not all prohibited bases apply to all programs.) Many materials can be made available in alternative formats for ADA clients. To file a complaint of discrimination, write USDA, Office of Civil Rights, Room 326-W, Whitten Building, 14th and Independence Avenue, SW, Washington, DC 20250-9410 or call 202-720-5964.