A comment on the "Compost" post I made a few days ago made me realize that not everyone can or wants to go around picking up yard waste to add to their compost pile. So I will list several sources of cheep or free compost materials that most people will have access to. For those who don't know the importance of compost, let me give you a few reasons. Adding organic matter into the soil supplies more nutrients to plants without resorting to chemical fertilizers. That same organic matter encourages biological diversity in the soil. Earth worms to break down the organic matter, aerate the soil, and increase the capacity for holding water. There are several other beneficial organisms that can help control pest and promote healthy plants. Compost, when brought in from many sources, add to and balance the trace minerals in the soil. Trace minerals are a small but important part of cell activity in plants, animals, and humans. While some farms or areas might be lacking in some others might have the same mineral in abundance, but be lacking another. By gathering your compost ingredients from a wide range of sources you tend to balance the levels of minerals in your own soil. Having enough of these can make your plants grow faster, be sweeter, and more nutritionally available. There are about two dozen widely available minerals that you can buy mixed as a supplement, but those are just the ones science has decided are important. There are between 50 and 200 trace minerals depending on who you ask. a cheep source of this is rock dust. Most places that make gravel or other crushed rock products have lots of rock dust that is not useable. While they might not give it to you you can usually purchase some for very little money.
Back to compost most people will tell you to shoot for 1 part nitrogen to 2-5 parts carbon. I don't know what works the best and in different areas a different ratio might work better than others. So instead use your nose, If your compost pile does not smell and is getting hot in the middle then you have a good mix of greens and browns. If it does not smell, but you are not getting heat, then you might need more nitrogen rich ingredients or you may not have reached a critical mass.
Leaves, carbon, help a friend or neighbor rake leaves in exchange for leaves. If your landscaper has leaves from other property ask that he bring you some.
Most cities will let you pick up yard waste, grass (nitrogen) and Leaves (carbon) from the city dumpsite, they are usually free or only a small fee. Sometimes the compost pile is large enough that it is already finished compost. There is also wood chips, carbon, at these sites from limbs and trees that people discard. They break down more slowly than leaves and grass in a compost pile, but they are carbon rich if you have too much nitrogen compost in your pile. They are also an inexpensive mulch for flower beds and shrubs. It is the same thing that you pat $10 a bag for, but it does not have the dye to make it red or black.
Pine straw, carbon, is slow to break down but can be added to your compost pile. Many people will tell you that it will make your soil acidic, but this is not true when it is composted with several other ingredients.
If you need more compost or fertilizer go to a local horse farm and ask for manure. Green or fresh manure, nitrogen, is a good fertilizer and many farms have piles that have been there for years and is already composted, no smell other than that of rich black dirt. Why pay $4 per cubic foot for composted manure when many farms will give it to you to haul away? Bagging and selling is only worth while if you have a large enough operation.
Another free farm option is spoiled hay, carbon. This is hay that has gotten wet or moldy and can not be fed to livestock. Many times if a farm has some they will be happy to have you haul it away.
While it does cost money, Peat moss is an organic carbon source that you can add to your compost pile.
Sawdust (carbon), never from treated wood, can be picked up for free from many sawmills, cabinet/mill work shops, or furniture manufacturers.
Straw, bales made from the leftover stalks of grains, are usually $3-5 per bale, and a great source of carbon if you have too much nitrogen in your compost pile.
Grass clippings, nitrogen, If you use a bagged mower, just add this to your compost pile. If not city dumps are a source and another is landscapers who often have to pay to dump clippings so ask if they will give you a load and most will bring it by and cary it to your compost pile for you.
Corn cobs (chopped), carbon, If you know someone who grows corn for feeding to livestock ask for the cobs after the corn has been removed.
Corn Stalks, carbon, are another good source of brown material to add. Just remember to chop them up with your lawn mower so that they will break down quicker.
Seaweed/Kelp, nitrogen and lots of trace minerals, If you live near the coast most states will let you harvest what washes up onto the beach. Check the local statutes before doing this one though.
Wood Ashes, potassium, if you burn a wood stove, fire pit, camp fire, or a BBQ with lump charcoal (you are using a chimney starter and not lighter fluid aren't you?) just take the left over ashes and sprinkle them onto your compost pile.
Pruning and garden waste, varied, when you prune your flowers, shrubs, and trees or pull up a plant out of your garden don't throw it out, add it to your compost pile. Now the woody stuff might need to be run thru a chipper before it is small enough to break down in a reasonable amount of time, but a chipper is a good investment anyway.
Two things that can really help with a compost pile, and yard work in general, are a pitch fork and a wheel barrel. The pitch fork makes it much easier to lift, move, mix, and turn a compost pile. Use one once and you will never want to use your shovel for it again. A good one will cost about $40 new, at least in Georgia, but if you cant afford it or don't want to buy another tool then a shovel works just fine. The wheel barrel is great for moving stuff around your yard; bags to the compost pile, manure, compost, plants, soil, rock dust, mulch, and many other uses. It is also handy to have when doing home repairs. Good Luck and good composting.