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Home  > Question of the Week

Question of the Week

Permalink What can you tell me about composting household organic waste?

Answer: Adding compost—nature's own fertilizer—is one of the best ways to make
the soil in your garden richer and more productive. And you can easily make it yourself, while cutting back on yard and kitchen waste. Compost is simply a product of nature's own recycling program. Anything that is alive, plant or animal, will decompose once it dies. But decomposition isn't a solitary act. Other organisms, from bacteria to large mammals, do the work of decomposition—consuming the dead matter to use its energy to sustain themselves.

When conditions are right, the end result of decomposition is compost, also called humus—a combination of digested and undigested food that resembles a soft, sweet-smelling, nutrient-rich soil.

Composting speeds along the decomposition process by controlling what is being decomposed and providing the right conditions and decomposition "workers." Bacteria are the first on the job, followed by fungi and protozoa, and then such larger organisms as earthworms and beetles. At the end of the process, you will have a soil amendment that not only adds nutrients to the soil but also can help break up heavy clay soil and improve the capacity of sandy soil to hold nutrients and water.

For more information, see the ATTRA publication Composting—The Basics. This publication provides a good discussion for beginning composters, addressing such topics as the materials that are needed to begin a compost pile and techniques for successfully managing the composting process. It includes a troubleshooting list describing common problems and how to address them. The publication also contains an introduction to composting for small agricultural operations such as market gardens. It is available at

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Permalink What effect does sodium chloride from a water softener have on plants?

Answer: Salts are naturally found in soils and are essential to all plants and animals. Most soils naturally contain low salt levels and can provide plants with an adequate supply of nutrients necessary for plant growth. The salts are in a form that can be taken up by plants. However, an accumulation of salts in the soil can cause plant growth problems, including "burning," and also make it difficult for plants to take up and retain water.

In addition to being used as a water softener, sodium chloride is used agriculturally as a fertilizer and an herbicide and also to manage plant diseases. The amount of salt content varies in the way it is used. Looking at its application rates is one way to understand its effects on plants. In small amounts--approximately one part salt per 1,000 parts soil--salt can promote plant growth. However, at greater levels--around one pound of salt per gallon of water--the salt acts as an herbicide. Excessive use of salt-containing fertilizers or herbicides, as well as irrigating with high levels of salt in the water, can cause soil issues, including soil crusting. Normal levels of salt in the soil are below 1 millimhos per centimeter (mmho/cm).

As mentioned, small amounts of salt can provide plant nutrients necessary for plant growth. This depends on the type of salt, the soil type, and the crops being grown. Temperate soils usually have enough natural salt needed for plant growth, so the addition of salt is unnecessary.

Sodium chloride is used in water conditioners because the sodium replaces the calcium and magnesium in "hard" water. The amount of sodium contained within softened water is extremely low and plants are not normally affected by the sodium. Other salts sources that contain potassium, nitrogen, calcium, and magnesium tend to make better plant fertilizers. Potassium chloride can be used instead of sodium chloride as a water softener and can be beneficial as potash source. There are several brands of potassium chloride that do not contain sodium, and an Internet search is a good way to learn about them.

Agricultural soils that contain high levels of salts need to have the salts removed from the root zones. This can be done through leaching and implementing artificial drainage as there are no chemical means for removing soils. Crop selection is also important to consider for saline soils as crops vary in their tolerance to salt. For example, beets, kale, asparagus, and spinach have a high salt tolerance while radishes, celery, and beans have a low salt tolerance. The following crops tend to fall in the medium range (between 4 mmhos and 10 mmhos): tomato, broccoli, cabbage, pepper, cauliflower, lettuce, corn, potato, carrot, onion, pea, squash, and cucumber.

No matter what type of water conditioner you are using, you should check the salt content in the soil routinely. Most soil-testing laboratories, such as land grant universities, can test for salt content. The ATTRA website offers a directory of Alternative Soil Testing Laboratories at

There are many great resources available to learn about soil micronutrients. The ATTRA website is a great place to start, as we have several publications that focus on soil nutrients. In addition, each publication and section on the ATTRA website contains a list of further resources.

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Permalink What are appropriate ground covers for garden plots that are also suitable for grazing by pastured poultry?

Answer: Poultry will forage and utilize most ground covers if they are kept at a young stage. If the ground cover is left to grow out, the plants will become fibrous and difficult for the birds to obtain nutrients from and digest completely. The ground cover should be kept under about four inches tall by cutting, mowing, or grazing by larger animals in order to be best utilized by poultry. Any ground covers and green manures that grow well in your area would be suitable if managed this way.

Common ground covers that are suitable for the summer growing season include legumes (such as cowpeas and clover), millet, buckwheat, and sorghum. Ground covers that are suitable for the winter season include hairy vetch, rye, oats, and wheat. Cool-season legumes (vetches, clovers, field peas) may also be suitable, depending on your climate.

Your local extension agent can provide you with information on plants that grow well in your area during different times of year.

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Permalink What can you tell me about composting poultry litter?

Answer: Poultry manure is considered one of the richest animal manures and contains high levels of the macronutrients N-P-K. Fowls do not excrete excrete urine separately; therefore, the droppings need to be composted before use or they will burn the plants they come in contact with (1). The addition of a high carbon amendment such as litter makes poultry manure well-suited for composting. Poultry litter may start to decompose prior to being removed from the barn and will then decompose rapidly in a compost pile. Poultry litter has a high pH and may require the addition of amendments to lower the alkalinity. The high nitrogen content can be utilized for making fertilizer-grade compost but can also result in nitrogen loss and odor from ammonia (2).

To learn more about the rules for composting manures to be in compliance with the National Organic Program, refer to the ATTRA publication Manures for Organic Crop Production, Another useful ATTRA publication related to composting poultry litter is Arsenic in Poultry Litter: Organic Regulations,

Another good source of information is the publication On-Farm Composting of Poultry Litter, by Forbes Walker, University of Tennessee Agriculture Extension Service. It's available online at

1. Minnich, Jerry and Marjorie Hunt. 1979. The Rodale Guide to Composting. Rodale Press, Emmaus, PA.

2. Northeast Regional Agricultural Engineering Service (NRAES). 1992. On-Farm Composting Handbook. NRAES, Ithaca, NY.

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