You may think that throwing your carrot peelings and apple cores in the garbage has no effect since they will decompose anyway. But even natural plant matter will last for years when it’s sealed in a plastic bag and tossed into a landfill.
As a great example of community responsibility, the city of Seattle, WA offers free composting bins to all residents. This keeps over 800 million pounds of garbage out of their landfills! Not only can you help divert your own kitchen waste from the dump, but you can create rich nourishing humus for your own garden, whether it’s an acre or an old wine barrel on your patio.
WHY SHOULD I COMPOST?
o Over 21 million tons of food waste is generated each year in the USA. If this were composted, the greenhouse gases saved would equal taking over 2 million cars off the roads.
o You will add valuable nutrients back into the soil and your garden will be healthier and your vegetables will be more nourishing to you and your family.
o You will save money by not having to buy garden soil and mulching materials, and that will save the energy to transport those products to your store and your garden.
WHAT IS COMPOST?
When organic materials such as leaves, vegetable food scraps, manure, and garden waste decompose in a controlled environment (your composting bin), a rich and fertile humus is created that will improve and fertilize your garden soil.
Your plants are much healthier because:
o nutrients are added
o drainage is greatly improved, if your soil has a lot of clay in it
o if your soil is sandy, the compost helps it to retain water
If your compost pile is cool, worms and insects will find their way into it and help to transform your waste into food for your garden. But it helps to get the conditions right. Provide these friendly critters with sufficient air, water and food, and they will be your garden’s best friends.
IS COMMERCIAL COMPOST THE SAME AS “HOME-MADE”?
Homemade compost is better for microbes and nutrient diversity, but bagged compost does provide organic matter and some microbes. Beware that composted manure may be mostly water by weight.
If you have a large garden where the soil needs added nutrients, you may want to purchase cheap bags of composted manure or bulk compost from a local commercial composter, then add your own compost as needed.
If you are purchasing compost, keep in mind that there are no regulatory labeling requirements on bagged compost. Grade A composted sewage sludge is probably the safest, because it is the only type of compost that requires testing for heavy metals and pathogens before it is approved for sale to the public. Feedlot manure is much more dangerous from a pathogen point of view, since testing is not required.
WHAT IF I DON’T HAVE ENOUGH SPACE?
Even if you only have a small apartment balcony or back porch, you can compost in a plastic bin (about 18 gallon size or larger). Drill or punch holes about an inch or two apart on all sides, on the bottom and in the lid. Set it inside another slightly larger and shallower bin (those under the bed bins work well for this). Put a few rocks or bricks between the two so there is a space for air flow. Add your waste, and shake the bin every couple of days. If you have room for two, you can add to one for several months, then stop adding to it and start the second one. Continue to shake it occasionally until it is brown, crumbly and earthy smelling. You can use this compost for small balcony planters, or even your houseplants, if you don’t have room for a large garden.
WHAT DOES MY COMPOST NEED TO THRIVE?
For great quality compost, mix materials high in nitrogen (such as clover, fresh grass clippings) and those high in carbon (such as dried leaves and straw). Moisture is provided by rain, and by fresh kitchen waste, but you may need to add water to keep it damp. Turning or mixing the pile frequently provides oxygen.
Your compost needs to breathe:
Without sufficient air, your compost pile will decompose, but more slowly… and it will be a lot more smelly! So make sure you have lots of space for air in your pile. Straw works great for keeping the pile from matting down. If you don’t have access to straw, be sure you break up any clumps and try turning it with a spade or garden fork regularly to fluff it up.
Your compost needs to drink:
You want just enough moisture to coat each particle in your pile slightly, providing the ideal environment for thirsty microbes. It should be as damp as a towel that has been wrung out. Wetter than this and it will start to get smelly. Generally your kitchen waste will be moist enough, but if you are adding dry leaves from your yard you may want to moisten them slightly. If your pile is open to the elements, cover with a tarp in rainy weather. Too much moisture can cause temperatures to fall within the pile and make it smelly. Not enough moisture prevents the pile from heating up and slows down decomposing process. Check your compost pile’s moisture level weekly and adjust it if necessary. Add water to increase moisture, or add dry material to help dry it out.
Your compost needs to eat:
Your friendly compost-making bugs have two food groups… and it’s always best to mix the two if you can:
o Browns (Dry) – These materials are high in carbon and include straw, dry leaves, wood chips or ashes, peanut shells, pine needles, vegetable stalks and shredded cardboard or newspaper (avoid colored paper and inks). You may want to moisten these a bit as you add them to your compost pile.
o Greens (Wet) – These are high in nitrogen and include kitchen fruit and veggie waste, green leaves and grass clippings, tea bags, coffee grounds, and even seaweed. Horse manure is great, but it is better if it is well aged. Check at a local stable.
Your compost needs to stay warm:
If you live in a cold climate, your compost pile will most likely be dormant during the winter. It will be in fine form as soon as spring heat starts to warm it up again. Compost doesn’t need to be hot — 50% Fahrenheit is just fine.
You may be considering hot composting (110 to 160 degrees F), because the heat produces quick compost (in weeks rather than months), and kills most seeds and plant diseases. However, studies have shown that compost produced at high temperatures has less ability to suppress diseases in the soil. High heat may kill the beneficial bacteria necessary to suppress disease.
o Balance of fresh and dry: Compost piles with a balance of one part fresh to two parts dry materials break down the quickest. Add one garden forkful of fresh material to the pile and top it with two forkfuls of dry material. Then mix them together.
o Size: Compost piles that are at least 3 cubic feet (3 ft. x 3 ft. x 3 ft.) heat up faster and break down more quickly.
o Kick-start your compost pile: If you’re just starting your compost pile, add a shovelful of high-quality garden soil to help kick-start the microbial activity in your pile.
o Mixing: If possible, mix the compost once a week to move material from the outside of the pile in. This keeps the pile from compacting. (compaction reduces airflow and slows down decomposition)
o Smelly?: Healthy compost smells earthy – if yours is smelly, it’s too wet. Turn it more often and add more dry matter to help dry it out. When your compost is too wet, it eliminates the oxygen in your pile — which slows down the decomposition process and encourages anaerobic microorganisms to thrive… increasing the stink! It might also smell bad if your mixture has too much garden debris or kitchen waste. Bury it deep within the compost and add more dry matter.
o When it’s finished: The compost should be dark brown, earthy smelling, and moist to the touch. Compost at the bottom of the pile typically “finishes” first. You’ll know your compost is finished and ready to use when it no longer heats up and when original ingredients are unrecognizable. This generally takes 6 to 12 months.
o Nothing’s happening!: If you notice that nothing is happening, you may need to add more nitrogen, water, or air. Cold composting may take a year or more to decompose depending on the materials in the pile and the conditions.
o The compost pile is too hot: If your compost pile is too hot, you might have too much nitrogen. Add some more carbon materials to reduce the heating. A bad smell also may indicate too much nitrogen.
o It’s attracting flies and insects: Adding kitchen wastes may attract insects. To prevent this problem, make a hole in the center of the pile and bury the waste. Don’t forget… do not add meat scraps or any animal matter, pet manure, diseased plant material, weeds, fats or oils, or dairy products.
o Can I use fresh manure?: Don’t. This could burn your plants. Make sure manure (NOT dog or cat feces) is well-aged before it goes in your garden.