Compost may not be a panacea for every problem a gardener encounters, but it is as close to a cure all as you’ll find.

I recommend compost as a soil amendment nearly every day to clients; it just naturally comes up somewhere in the conversation.

It is a powerful soil amendment that helps clay soils drain better and helps sandy soils hold more water. The tiny microbes that work to break down organic matter have been found to make nutrients more available to plants.

Beneficial bacteria and fungi in compost work with plants to ward off disease and insect attacks. These same microbes actually help improve soil and water quality by trapping and breaking down contaminants such as pesticides, herbicides and petroleum products.

Mountain of compost

Making compost at home is a wonderful way to recycle nutrients from food scraps and yard debris.

Home composting diverts waste from local landfills, cuts down on the cost of soil amendments and leaves gardeners feeling self-sufficient. However, not everyone has the space, time or inclination to produce their own compost.

Fortunately, the folks at the Charleston County Recycling at the Bees Ferry Landfill have created a mountain of “black gold,” recycling our yard waste and food scraps into some great compost.

The best news is that it’s available for purchase for a mere $10 a ton.

If you purchased Bees Ferry compost prior to 2012, you likely encountered lots of shredded plastic from the collection bags, which is a major objection for most gardeners and landscapers.

You will be pleasantly surprised to find the plastic is gone now and the quality of the compost has been elevated to the highest in the state.

Certification

Late last year in a conversation with my colleague Sherry Aultman, the organic certification program director with Clemson University, I learned that her office had recently certified the compost from Bees Ferry for use in organic farming operations, a first in the state. (The compost itself cannot be “certified organic.” That term is reserved for agricultural products consumed by humans.)

Charleston County Compost Superintendent Harvey Gibson and private compost consultant Darren Midlane cite their affiliation with the U.S. Composting Council, the national trade organization for the composting industry, as one of the many factors that led to this achievement.

The two men work to adhere to USCC’s Seal of Testing Assurance Program, “a compost testing, labeling and information disclosure program,” to meet the highest national standards for composting.

Every two months, S.C. DHEC requires a battery of scientific tests be performed to ensure that the compost we are purchasing is free of heavy metals, pesticide residue and other contaminates.

Compost scientists from Cornell have found that the microbial decomposition that occurs during composting breaks down the types of pesticides now on the market. The composting process generates high enough temperatures to naturally kill diseases and destroy weed seeds.

Food waste

Last year, the facility added a commercial food waste composting program to the mix.

Forty-four area schools, restaurants, universities and businesses are separating their food scraps from other recyclables in their cafeterias. Private haulers bring the organic material to the composting facility.

Nutrient-rich food scraps are recycled into compost instead of being buried in the landfill. This program, combined with the exclusion of yard debris, has expanded the life expectancy of the landfill from seven to 22 years!

Sustainability

Bringing technical and scientific expertise to the program is Darren Midlane of Kessler Consulting Inc.

The private consulting firm was hired to work alongside county employees to streamline the process.

The bottom line is Charleston County Recycling is operating more sustainably, protecting water quality and natural resources.

The finished product is $10 a ton or may be purchased in bags for $2 each.

For tips on using compost in the garden go to http://bit.ly/UMKQ0I.

Gardening school enrollment opens

The third annual Carolina Yard Gardening School is now open for enrollment.

Join Clemson Extension and the Tri-County Master Gardeners for this one-day gardening event that includes lectures, workshops and free compost from Charleston County Recycling. The school will be held 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. March 16.

Preregistration is required and the cost is $75.

For details and to register go to http://bit.ly/XOONhg or email Amy Dabbs at adabbs@clemson.edu

Amy L. Dabbs is the urban horticulture extension agent and Tri-County Master Gardener coordinator for the Clemson University Cooperative Extension. Send questions to gardening@postandcourier.com.