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Home Composting Demystified

If you’re like many (including myself at first), composting seems quite complicated and best left to the “experts.” Luckily, it turns out it’s pretty simple to do, though easier and faster if you have a yard or outdoor space.

Composting definedCompost_heap_2.jpg Composting is the process of turning organic materials, such as vegetable scraps, leaves, and grass, to rich soil that can then be used as fertilizer. The process can take from as little as two weeks to as long as a year, depending on the ingredients and level of human and environmental interaction. Composting is a great way of keeping food residuals and yard trimmings out of the waste stream while making rich soil.


What to compost

You can compost most things in the yard, including leaves, grass, vines, and a majority of food, such as vegetable and fruit scraps, manure, eggshells, nutshells, and coffee grinds. Even hair clippings, feathers, straw, livestock manure, and bone meal can be thrown in, though I don’t know of anyone who has tried the hair clippings.

Some materials, such as wood ash, sawdust from untreated wood, and black and white newsprint should only be composted in limited amounts. Wood ash is a source of lime, which enhances decomposition but can also cause nitrogen loss if in large quantities, while sawdust requires extra nitrogen, and newsprint composts more slowly. Each municipality is different in terms of the items that can be composted, so check with yours.

Items that should not be included are: diseased leaves or plants or those susceptible to disease (ex: roses or peonies), human or pet poop (yes, I said “poop”), plants treated with herbicides or pesticides, kitchen veggies cooked with animal fat, as well as meat and dairy products, persistent weeds, and plants that have gone to seed. Some suggest including branches and vines, while others prefer not to include them. If you include them, make sure they are cut into little pieces, or else the process will take much longer.

Where to locate the compost pile

Composting is easier if you have a backyard or can borrow one. You can buy or put together a bin or container for the compost, though compost piles don’t necessarily need to be enclosed. Pick a place on grass or soil that is out of direct sunlight and sheltered from the wind, and that stays relatively warm. If you enclose it, make sure it’s large enough that you can easily turn the pile. Ideally it should be at least 4’x4’x4’ (minimum is 3’x3’x3’) and no taller than 6’ (too small a pile does not decompose properly, and too tall causes compaction and loss of oxygen). You can get started whenever you want, though fall is usually a good time because of the many fallen leaves (and, you don’t have to rake all of them).

For those who do not have a backyard but would like to compost their scraps, it is possible to compost in a 10-gallon box or other container either indoors or on your balcony.

Creating the pile

Start collecting organic materials, then add water so they feel like a moist, wrung-out sponge. Grab a handful and squeeze—if water drips out, add some more dry material; if it is too dry, add some wet material or water. The pile should feel warm to the touch except in the cold winter months. The ratio of ‘browns’ to ‘greens’ (i.e. dead leaves = high in carbon, vs. fresh grass = high in nitrogen) should be about three to one.

To speed up the process, you can shred or chop organic materials before putting them in the pile. The contents of the pile should be thoroughly and periodically mixed. More frequent turning (ex: every 3 days vs. once a month) results in faster composting. If the pile smells, it is either too damp or lacks oxygen, so turn it more frequently to dry and air it out.

Ready to use!

When the compost looks dark brown and crumbly, smells earthy and you don’t recognize any of the initial ingredients, it’s ready to use. You can test it by taking a little and putting it in a plastic bag for a day or two to see if it smells. If there are no strong odors when you open the bag, it’s good to go. It can then be used as mulch, a liquid “fertilizer,” or incorporated into the soil.

There are many different types of composting (ex: cold vs. hot, worm); and ways to layer the pile to speed up the process, but I will leave that portion, indeed, to the “experts.” Plus, I’m too squirmy (no pun intended) to play with worms.

Don’t be shy–let us know if you have any composting tips to share!