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Compost that Christmas tree

Let your Christmas tree do some good after you get rid of it.

When that Christmas tree comes down this year, take a moment to imagine its next incarnation: Chipped up and mixed into soil, it might soon secure new grasses along some South Texas highway or sustain vegetable starts in someone’s garden.

Adding weathered plant material back into the soil is becoming the norm for a growing number of people who are purchasing and using compost.

Two decades ago Houston offered only a couple places to buy it; now there are more than 60. Beyond buying, more people are learning how to make compost themselves from clipped grass and wilted vegetables.

“We are in a high growth mode and poised to steamroll,” said Michael Virga, executive director of the U.S. Compost Council. It plans to debut a campaign this spring with a message aimed at landscapers, green builders and the public about poor soil quality and the importance of recycling food.

“Compost Camp” is offered by the State of Texas Alliance for Recycling. Urban Harvest, the Houston gardening nonprofit, offers classes in compost and soil.

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Composting has grown significantly in Texas for a different reason, and it has a lot to do with the Texas Department of Transportation. It has become, it believes, the single largest purchaser of compost in the country.

In 1985, landscape architect Barrie Cogburn tried to help TxDOT determine why its freshly graded slopes so frequently slumped away in the rain, taking with them the department’s expensive plantings. Cogburn noticed that new topsoil brought in by subcontractors was often little more than finely ground rock.

At a workshop she learned just how much organic material was ending up in Texas landfills. “They have too much, and we don’t have enough,” she thought. “There has to be a way to come together on this.”

Cogburn and Scott McCoy of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality teamed up in an experiment adding compost to the transportation department’s soil.

They also added dairy manure that was piling up in Bosque County, polluting water all the way downstream to Waco. The results were favorable: TxDOT embankments started staying in place. And the organic material retained water, so the department had to irrigate less. The practice is now widespread.

To ensure that your tree is part of the circle of life and not needlessly taking up space in a landfill, you have to take it to a recycling center, or if you have city of Houston trash service you can leave it by your curb on a tree waste day. You can find a list of recycling centers here, and the Chron has a handy map here. Recycling centers will take trees through January 7. This is a no-brainer, so make sure you take advantage.

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