According to the EPA, about 25 percent of U.S. household waste is composed of food remnants and yard trimmings. If these materials were diverted to another use that kept them out of the trash, a significant portion of the country’s everyday waste could be recovered for reuse.
Grass clippings, food scraps and yard waste are all ideal materials to add to a compost pile. This means that starting one is about way more than just creating a great soil booster for a flower bed, garden or trees in the yard – it can dramatically reduce what ends up in our local landfills.
For those who have been thinking about starting a pile for some time now, but are still unsure about taking on the challenge, understanding the basics of composting can make it a less intimidating process.
It’s not as hard as you think! Starting a compost pile is as easy as picking up a bin from a home and garden store or constructing your own using an enclosed structure.
FIRST THINGS FIRST: WHAT IS COMPOSTING?
For households, composting is a way to recycle certain materials and kitchen scraps and turn them into a beneficial soil amendment for home gardens and reduce waste output.
Composting is the natural process of decomposition, sped up by a deliberate strategy in a concentrated environment to transform materials such as grass clippings, vegetable scraps, newspaper and more into a new material (known as “humus”) that can then be incorporated back into the soil.
THE DO’S AND DONT’S: WHAT TO ADD, WHAT TO LEAVE OUT
Besides the process itself, knowing what ingredients should go into a backyard composting operation is essential for a successful outcome.
“Green” (nitrogen rich) and “brown” (carbon rich) materials are required to be in proper balance to ensure that the pile does not become anaerobic. Anaerobic decomposition occurs as a result of an improper chemical balance, mainly a lack of oxygen.
This lack of oxygen necessitates aeration (turning the pile). If the pile is not properly aerated or has too much nitrogen and not enough carbon, rotting and stinking can occur. A good compost pile should never smell bad.
So, how to achieve this proper chemical balance? Let’s start with the greens. Green materials refer to those that are rich in nitrogen.
SOME EXAMPLES OF GREEN MATERIALS INCLUDE:
- Food scraps – Vegetable peelings are a common material produced by households and make a great compost amendment. However, NEVER add animal-based leftovers (fat trimmings, meat, cheese, milk, etc) as the oils and fats are not conducive to a backyard composting operation.
- Fresh grass clippings
- Plants and plant cuttings – Just-picked weeds from around the backyard (as long as there are no developed seeds or seed heads) are permissible, as are flower tops. Green leaves from a freshly cut branch work as well (just make sure to shred them).
Brown materials, on the other hand, are rich in another crucial ingredient, carbon. Carbon gives the microbes the energy they need to work. It is useful to shred most brown ingredients so as to lessen the workload for microbes, enabling decomposition to happen faster.
SOME EXAMPLES OF BROWN MATERIALS INCLUDE:
- Dead, dry leaves
- Hay and straw
- Simple paper products – Newspaper, household paper and cardboard
- Crushed egg shells
- Coffee grounds and filters – tea bags and loose-leaf tea work also work well
- Wood ashes and sawdust – Use sparingly. Wood ashes can make the pile very alkaline, which limits microbial activity, and sawdust can take a long time to break down.
Compost bins are of two types, stationary and rotating. Both types must have their contents turned periodically to provide oxygen and combine the decaying materials. Stationary bins can be as simple as a well-ventilated cage made from wire fence sections or wooden crates assembled from a kit or reused from a pallet. A well-designed bin will retain heat and moisture, allowing for quicker results. Then there’s compost tumblers, easy to turn bins that speed up the process — compost in weeks, not months or years — by frequent oxygen infusions and heat retention. Select one based on how much plant matter (grass, leaves, weeds, stalks and stems from last year’s garden) you have at your disposal, how large your yard is, and how quickly you need to use the finished product.
When using the stationary bin method, locate the pile in a sunny location so that it has as much heat as possible. If it’s in the shade all day, decomposition will still happen, but it will be much slower, especially when freezing temps arrive in the fall. Compost tumblers can also make heat an advantage if placed in direct sunlight.
MAKE IT EASY!
To avoid countless trips out to the backyard to dispose of kitchen scraps, put them in an airtight bag and freeze them or use an old plastic gallon container of ice cream with a lid. Keep food scraps in the container and seal the lid until you’re ready to make a trip to the compost bin. This also helps to avoid the smell of old food.
AVOID COMMON MISTAKES
It really is difficult to mess up a compost bin. A few simple suggestions are:
- Don’t start too small. The breakdown process needs a critical mass in order to do its job. However, certain bins work well for small amounts of material, so choose a product for your specific needs.
- Keep things moist. It’s easy to walk away and forget that there’s an active process going on, so check the pile regularly, especially during hot, dry weather.
- Don’t depend on one material. A combination of different textures and nutrients created by the disintegration of many different plants will give your plants a gourmet diet that helps promote resistance to disease and pests. Think about it — a huge clump of grass clippings just sticks together in a huge mat that hangs around for years. Add some leaves, stir, and then watch the natural forces of water, air and heat go to work quickly!
- Don’t get overwhelmed. This isn’t rocket science, so jump in and try, even if you don’t have a clue. You’ll soon see what works and what doesn’t.
- Where you live and your particular climate will have a significant effect on your pile, it occasionally may come down to some experimentation.