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Composting Basics

5 min read | Dec 13, 2012 | Resources 

Compost is what you get when yard and garden debris, kitchen scraps and other organic materials have completely broken down into a rich, dark, crumbly material. Gardeners call it “black gold,” because it is so rich in nutrients and adds so much value when added to your soil. Finished compost is often called humus. In the right conditions, bacteria and other microorganisms quickly break down organic material into rich, fertile earth that you can in turn add to your soil to increase it’s fertility and health. After the organisms have completed their task, the finished product is a dark compost that is rich in minerals and micro-nutrients that is ready to be added to your plants.

Aside from fertilizing your plants (chemical free!), composting keeps waste out of landfills; just think of it as recycling. Instead of plastic bottles and aluminum cans, it’s dead leaves and veggie peels. It is cheap and easy to learn, but there is a little bit of an art to it that comes with practice. Breaking down waste requires the right amount of moisture, heat, soil aeration and a proper mix of materials.

Location and Appearance
First you’ll need to select your location for composting. Where you put it depends on function and aesthetics. In terms of appearances and good relations with your neighbors, you probably don’t want to place your bin on your front lawn. Your neighbors will appreciate a more behind-the-scenes location. Instead, opt for the backyard. Close to the garden and a water source are both good places for building your compost pile or bin since it will be easier to move the materials to and from the garden and easier to keep it moist. Another idea may be to place it near your kitchen to make it convenient to place table scraps on the pile or in the bin.

Bin or Pile, Buy or Build? 
It’s entirely up to you whether you purchase a compost bin or build your own. A wide variety of compost bins and tumblers are available for backyard composting. They vary in price, style and function but all are designed to help you compost more efficiently. If you don’t want to purchase a bin, you can build your own using cement blocks, brick, wood or pallets and wire. If you have adequate outdoor space and are willing to wait a little longer for the finished compost, simply start heaping your compost in a corner of the yard.

What to Compost
Now that you’re ready to start making compost, you need to know what materials can and cannot be used in the compost bin or pile. You need to provide food, air and water. The water and air are easy; the food is a little more complex. Food for your little micro friends consists of two classes of materials, simply referred to as “Greens” and “Browns.” Green materials are high in nitrogen, while brown materials are high in carbon. The green materials provide protein for the micro bugs, while the brown materials provide energy.

Typical Green Materials
– Fresh (green) Grass clippings
– Fresh manure (horse, chicken, rabbit, cow)
– Kitchen scraps (fruit/veggies, coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, eggshells)
– Weeds (avoid weeds that have gone to seed)
– Green leaves
– Leftover fruits from the garden

Typical Brown Materials
– Brown, dry leaves
– Dried grass
– Stems, twigs and cornstalks (shredded)
– Sawdust (in moderation)
– Newspaper and cardboard (shredded)

Leave Out/Reason Why
– Black walnut tree leaves or twigs – Releases substances that might be harmful to plants
– Coal or charcoal ash – Might contain substances harmful to plants
– Dairy products (e.g., butter, milk, sour cream, yogurt) and eggs – Create odor problems and attract pests such as rodents and flies
– Diseased or insect-ridden plants – Diseases or insects might survive and be transferred back to other plants
– Fats, grease, lard, or oils – Create odor problems and attract pests such as rodents and flies
– Meat or fish bones and scraps – Create odor problems and attract pests such as rodents and flies
– Pet wastes (e.g., dog or cat feces, soiled cat litter) – Might contain parasites, bacteria, germs, pathogens, and viruses harmful to humans
– Yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides – Might kill beneficial composting organisms

Composting materials should feel moist but not overly soggy.

Compost should feel warm to the touch except in the cold winter months.

To prevent unpleasant odors that can occur when materials decompose without oxygen, compost should be turned regularly to ensure that air is reaching the center of the pile.

Speeding Up the Compost Process
Compost decomposes fastest between 120 and 160 degrees Fahrenheit, so anything that will increase the heat will “cook” your compost faster. Here are four tips for fast composting:

1.) Chop and shred larger items, which makes it easier for the bacteria to break them down. For example, one easy way is to slice and dice garden waste is to run your lawn mower over leaves and other garden waste. Take scissors to newsprint or cardboard.

2.) Turn, turn, turn.

3.) Give your compost heap a “big meal” versus small snacks. Collect all your waste over a couple of days and then add it in one big bunch. The more you add at one time, the more your compost will heat up.

4.) Keep your compost pile in the sun. The heat will speed up the process.
Compost is finished when it’s a dark, rich color, crumbles easily and you can’t pick out any of the original ingredients. It should have a sweet, earthy smell. If it’s too stringy or lumpy, it may need more time. Keep in mind that the amount of time can really vary. It can take anywhere from three to twelve months to produce compost. Decomposition depends on a number of things including temperature, what organic matter you’ve used, type of compost bin, how fine the waste material was chopped and how often you’ve turned it.

Benefits of Composting
– It builds good soil structure
– Enables soil to retain nutrients, water, and air
– Protects against drought
– Helps maintain a neutral pH
– Protects plants from many diseases commonly found in the garden
– Feeds earthworms and other microbial life in the soil
– Reduces the amount of waste that goes into landfills

No matter what type of soil you have, it can be improved with the addition of compost. Ready to go green and improve the structure of your soil? Get started today! If you have any questions along the way, give us a call… we’d be happy to help!

Happy Composting!
Cindy K.
FairviewGreenhouses & GardenCenter