Composting is an effective way for residents to practice sustainability and self sufficiency. Read on for the starting from scratch guide!
Compost is the product manufactured through the controlled aerobic, biological decomposition of biodegradable materials. It mitigates climate change, improves soil health, increases soil productivity and reduces landfill usage. What you can compost and scenarios are crucial to deciding where your waste goes!
Let's start with backyard composting. You can compost at home in two ways:
- Vermicomposting (worm composting) with a bin.
Composting requires a balance of the following:
- Carbon-rich materials (Browns) - Dry leaves, plant stalks, and twigs. The carbon-rich materials provide food for the microorganisms to consume and digest.
- Nitrogen-rich materials (Greens) - Grass clippings and food scraps. The nitrogen-rich materials heat up the pile to create ideal conditions for the material to breakdown.
- Water (moisture).
A mix of browns and greens.
WHAT DO I COMPOST?
What You CAN Compost at Home
What to AVOID Composting at Home
|Nitrogen-Rich Material (“Greens”)
|Meat, fish and bones
|Food and vegetable scraps
|Cheese and dairy products
|Most grass clippings and yard trim
|Pet waste and cat litter
|Coffee grounds and paper filters
|Paper tea bags (no staples)
|Fats, oils and greases
|Treated or painted wood
|Carbon-Rich Materials (“Browns”)
|Aggressive weeds/weeds with seeds
|Plant stalks and twigs
|Shredded paper (non-glossy, not colored) and shredded brown bags
|Cooked food (small amounts are fine)
|Shredded cardboard (no wax coating, tape, or glue)
|Herbicide treated plants
|Untreated wood chips
(SOURCE - EPA.GOV)
STEPS FOR STARTING FROM SCRATCH
FOR GREENS - Collect and store your fruit and vegetable scraps in a closed container on your kitchen counter, under your sink, or in your fridge or freezer.
FOR BROWNS - Set aside an area outside to store your steady supply of leaves, twigs, or other carbon-rich material (to mix with your food scraps).
There are plenty of options that do not add an unpleasant odor to your house! You can sprinkle the sealed compost vessel with baking soda, spray it with a tea tree and water mixture or even line the bottom with clay.
Composting pails in a kitchen are a great choice for storage and can be closed to mitigate smells.
Composting starts inside with a mix of greens.
BINS vs. PILES - Bins protect compost and contain the process in a smaller footprint. They also reduce any smells associated with the decomposition of the organic matter. They are excellent at keeping compost at correct temperatures and protected from rain. Piles on the other hand are exposed to the elements. They require turning often and need to be protected from excess moisture. A tarp is one way to accomplish the protection. Piles are generally cheaper and much more versatile.
Choose a space for your compost bin or pile that is accessible year-round and has good drainage. Avoid placing it right up against a fence and ensure there is a water source nearby. Your compost pile will break down in sun or shade.
Choose a type of bin if you opt not to use a traditional pile. Bins can be constructed from materials such as wire, wood, and cinder blocks. They can also be enclosed and include barrels and tumblers.
For options on what to buy, search for an outdoor compost bin or tumbler. Pictured below is a Compost Wizard Jr.
Composting Wizard Jr.
Be sure to cut or chop your browns and greens as needed to make them break down quicker!
Chopping greens, which are not always green.
Start your pile with a four- to six-inch layer of bulky browns such as twigs and wood chips. This layer will absorb extra liquids, elevate your pile and allow air to circulate at the base of the pile. Then layer your greens and browns like lasagna. If needed, add a little water to dampen the pile.
Having the right proportions of ingredients in your compost pile will provide the composting microorganisms the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and moisture they need to break down the material into finished compost.
When adding browns and greens to your pile, add at least two to three times the volume of browns (such as dry leaves) to the volume of greens (such as food scraps). Always ensure your food scraps are covered by four to eight inches of dry leaves or other browns.
Air and water are the other key ingredients in your pile. To ensure air circulation, add enough browns and turn your compost occasionally. To maintain moisture in your pile, ensure your combined materials have the consistency of a wrung-out sponge.
As the materials in your compost pile begin to decompose, the temperature of the pile will initially begin to rise, especially in the center. A backyard pile, if well maintained, can reach temperatures of 130° to 160° F. High temperatures help reduce the presence of pathogens and weed seeds.
Turning and mixing your pile from time to time will help speed up the decomposition process and aerate the pile. Use a garden fork to turn the outside of the pile inward.
Monitor your pile for moisture, odor, and temperature and make adjustments as needed.
When your compost pile is no longer heating up after mixing, and when there are no visible food scraps, allow your pile to cure, or finish, for at least four weeks. You can relocate the oldest compost at the bottom of the pile to a separate area to cure or stop adding materials to your pile. After curing, your pile will have shrunk to about one-third of its original size.
Compost in a well-maintained pile will be finished and ready for use in about three to five months. Left untended, a pile may take a year to decompose. The compost will look dark, loose, and crumbly and smell like fresh soil. Most, if not all, of the materials that went into the compost pile should be decomposed.
Screen or sift your finished compost to filter out materials that didn’t break down - twigs, fruit pits, eggshells, and items like produce stickers and plastic. (You can make a homemade screener out of ¼ inch hardware cloth.) Pits, eggshells, etc. that you sifted out can be added back into the active pile or to a new pile.
Composting can be spread on soil to make it more nutritious for plants.
BENEFITS OF COMPOST
The uses for compost are numerous. It can be added to flowers, vegetables beds, containers, tree beds, or mixed with potting soil for indoor plants, or used in outdoor soil.
Compost can be used two primary ways, as a soil additive or as a mulch. As a soil addition, mix in two to four inches of compost to the top six to nine inches of your soil. As a mulch, loosen the top two to three inches of soil and add a three-inch layer of compost on the surface, a few inches away from plant stems and tree trunks.
Adding finished compost to your soil :
- Improves the structure and health of your soil by adding organic matter.
- Helps the soil retain moisture and nutrients.
- Attracts beneficial organisms to the soil and reduces the need for pesticides and fertilizers.
- Reduces the potential for soil erosion.
- Sequesters carbon in the soil.
For more information visit the EPA's composting page.
Composting makes soil more productive for planting.