Composting 101

Converting kitchen and garden waste into rich soil matter is called composting. It is one of nature’s richest soil amendments that can also be used as a mulch. The process is a simple open-air technique that does not produce toxicity and creates healthy soil for you to use in the garden. Composting saves you money because it costs very little to make and is an absolutely magnificent soil addition by adding microbes and bacteria to your plants’ root systems.

Composting is important -- modern landfills are being smothered in yard clippings and food scraps. These ingredients are one quarter of the United States’ solid waste landfill content. Organic matter transforms into methane in landfills when it decomposes beneath all the tons of trash without consistent air exposure. Methane is a greenhouse gas over twenty times more potent than carbon dioxide. This excessive methane production is happening all over the world and creating a global crisis. Compost is one of the best ways to add magical microbes and healthy nutrients to your gardens and landscaping. Soil that is rich with natural ingredients and a positive microbial activity is the secret to a strong and healthy garden.

How to Compost

Every gardener has a preferred way to compost – whether you use a composter or try the layered pile method, they are both effective. There are dozens of different types of composters, so for now we will not discuss types of composters, and just stick to how to compost.

Your pile of compost needs a proper mixture of “browns”, which are carbon-rich materials; and “greens”, which are nitrogen-rich materials; and water. Remember, that to keep your compost organic, you will need to add natural products that do not have chemicals, fungicides, or weed killer in them.

Below is a list of content defined as “browns” or “greens” that you might consider using to get your compost pile started:

Examples of composting browns

  • Straw
  • Sawdust
  • Brown paper bags from the grocery store
  • Shredded cardboard and paper-based tissues and towels
  • Finely shredded cotton or dryer lint
  • Aged grass clippings
  • Dead leaves (do not use dead leaves from diseased plants)
  • Newspaper, black-and-white soy-based print preferred
  • Floor sweepings
  • Corn stalks
  • Twigs
  • Pine needles

Examples of composting greens

  • Fresh grass clippings
  • Coffee grounds
  • Tea bags with metal staple removed
  • Kitchen scraps. Avoid items that will root, such as potato skins and onions, unless ground completely
  • Plant prunings (do not add clippings from diseased plants)
  • Spent flowers and pulled weeds (do not add seeds)
  • Barnyard animal manures such as cow, horse, chicken, goat, sheep, and rabbit. Do not use dog, cat, or human manure/feces as they may contain pathogens or diseases that could be harmful
  • Seaweed
  • Do not add meat or bones or it will smell

To have the most success, mix a ratio of three- to four-parts browns to one-part greens. However, the ratios do not have to be exact. What is more important is to turn the pile occasionally. Organic waste of all types needs water to decompose. Therefore, keeping the pile moist is very important. Gray water, such as old dish water, cooking water, or clothes washer water from your home can be drained into a compost pile regularly to increase the moisture level. Keeping the pile as moist as a wrung-out sponge is the level of moisture you want. Adding chemicals and soaps is not recommended.

In order to create compost, it takes about three to four weeks if there is sufficient moisture and turning. Speed is determined by how often you turn the pile and the products you add. For example, if the contents are chopped up, it will be easier for the microbes in the compost pile to break them down. Of course, a good balance of carbon and nitrogen encourages quicker composting.

Your compost pile should be warm or hot to the touch because the temperature of the managed pile is important—it indicates the activity of the decomposition process. If the pile is not warm, then the microbial activity has slowed down and you need to add more green materials. Place the compost pile in full sun to increase activity.

If you actively manage the composting, within a few weeks you will have a rich soil additive for your garden that will help you increase microbial activity in your garden and landscape beds.

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