In the natural world, organic wastes naturally decompose, returning nutrients to the soil. Home composting allows vegetative kitchen and yard waste to decompose naturally. Compost is a wonderful, natural soil amendment, and it doesn't cost anything! In addition, composting conserves water. Here's how:
By creating and using compost at home, you also:
- Garbage disposals use lots of water to dispose of kitchen vegetative waste. Composting this waste instead saves water in the kitchen.
- Adding finished compost to plantings improves the water-holding capacity of soil, reducing the need for outdoor watering.
Other than some of your time and effort, composting requires just five things: organic material, moisture, soil organisms, air and a composting bin.
Organic material includes both green wastes (such as fruit and vegetable scraps and grass clippings), which are high in nitrogen, and brown wastes (such as leaves), which are high in carbon. Worms, bacteria and other tiny organisms break down the organic material into usable compost.
The key to a successful compost pile is a balance of these “green” and “brown” materials. Add each material in alternating thin layers to help maintain the balance of nitrogen and carbon. Add alternate layers of green wastes and brown wastes and, if desired, thin layers of soil. Cutting or shredding materials into smaller pieces will speed up the composting process.
To break down the organic materials, soil organisms need air and water. Add air to the pile by turning it every few weeks. Keep the compost pile moist, but try not let it get too wet—the wetness of a wrung-out sponge is just right. Try covering your compost pile during heavy rainfalls.
You can continue to add materials to your compost throughout the winter. The cold weather will slow down the composting process, but the pile will become active again with the arrival of spring. Most compost piles will be completely decomposed in six months, depending on the balance of materials and how often the pile is turned.
Start your compost site on a level, well-drained area. A shady spot will help prevent the compost from drying out. In the winter, the ideal spot is a sheltered area that receives direct sun all day. Whatever the location, do not put the compost bin on exposed tree roots.
A wide variety of ready-made compost bins are commercially available from home-improvement stores, garden centers and mail order and on-line companies. Very effective bins may be constructed with simple, inexpensive materials as well:
Pallet Compost bin:
24 wood screws
16 feet of 48” wide hardware cloth with 1/4'' or 1/2" squares
Hardware cloth or poultry netting compost bin:
16 feet to 18 feet of hardware/poultry wire, 36" or 48" tall
4 3-foot or 4-foot metal posts
Almost all organic materials can go onto your compost pile. However, some wastes, if not handled correctly, may cause odors and arouse the curiosity of unwanted pests. Follow the guidelines in the table below for best results.
- produce your own, free fertilizer/soil amendment, which contains no synthetic chemicals and which requires no fossil fuels in its production or transport
- keep nutrients in the nutrient cycle and out of landfills, where they cannot be used again
- help to keep solid waste management costs down for your community, which benefits taxpayers
- will have healthier, happier plants in your landscaping or garden!
Keeping the balance
If you have problems with your compost pile, they can usually be corrected by adding green or brown waste, adding water, or adding dry materials to distribute excess moisture.
Problem: Ammonia-like odor
Cause: Too much moisture or nitrogen
Solution: Add more carbon-rich material (brown waste)
Problem: Compost not breaking down or breaking down very slowly.
Cause: Too much air or carbon
Solution: Add water along with nitrogen-rich material (green waste)
Problem: Compost is damp and sweet-smelling, but isn't heating up.
Cause: Not enough nitrogen
Solution: Mix in more nitrogen (green waste)
Problem: Rotten odor
Cause: Too much moisture or over-compaction, or kitchen scraps on top of pile
Solution: Mix in dry brown waste and/or add wood ash. Bury kitchen scraps and cover pile to keep out excess rain or snow.
|DO ADD||DO NOT ADD|
|Grass clippings (in thin layers)||Meat, bones, fish scraps|
|Plant trimmings ||Fatty foods (including cheese, butter, oil, and salad dressing)|
|Houseplants and cut flowers||Dog and cat feces|
|Fruit and vegetable scraps, tea bags, |
egg shells, and coffee grounds
|Diseased or insect-infested plants|
|Dry leaves (bag your autumn leaves and add them to the compost |
throughout the year.)
|Stubborn weeds, such as crab grass|
|Woodchips and sawdust (in thin layers)||Weeds with mature seeds|
Using finished compost
The finished compost can be used a number of ways.
- When adding food waste, dig it into the compost pile immediately, or cover with a thin layer of soil or leaves.
- Do not add a lot of grass clippings. They tend to mat and become smelly. Leave them on your lawn and add them in thin layers.
- Make or install a second bin right next to your first bin. After your first bin is full, you can let it decompose and start adding organic materials to your second bin.
- If you use a wood-burning fireplace or woodstove, occasionally add potassium-rich wood ashes to your pile.
- On your flower and vegetable gardens, spread a layer of compost up to 2 inches, and dig in well before planting.
- On houseplants or outdoor potted plants, mix the finished compost with an equal amount of soil and sand to make a light potting soil.
- On your lawn, screened compost can be used as part of a seed-starting mix or lawn top-dressing.
- Spread a layer around the base of shrubs and trees.
- Make a liquid fertilizer (“compost tea”), by filling a watering can half-full with compost and half with water for use on indoor or outdoor plants.