What is composting?
Composting is the breaking down, or decomposition, of plant matter to produce a nutrient-rich, earthy substance called humus that may be used to enrich gardening soil. It is what happens naturally when leaves build up on the forest floor and decay. Humus transforms sterile dirt into fertile soil. Good compost smells earthy, looks like dark soil, and is crumbly.
Composting is a great way to recycle yard and kitchen waste into something useable, and reduce the amount of garbage that gets put in the landfill.
Two elements are part of the composting process: carbon and nitrogen. “Browns” are dead and dry plant matter, such as dead leaves, dried grass clippings, and woodchips. They are high in carbon, and are the source of energy for the composting microbes. “Greens” are fresh plant matter, such as fruit and vegetable scraps, green leaves and grass, tea bags and coffee grounds, and fresh horse manure. These are high in nitrogen, which is the protein source for the composting microbes.
How to Compost
Before you start, you need to decide how much money you want to spend and how much time you want to devote to composting. If you want to spend zero dollars, then a composting pile is best for you, but it requires a little work. If you don’t mind spending some money and don’t want to do hardly any work, then purchasing a tumbler may be the way for you.
You may be wondering about the time devoted to composting. It happens naturally in the forest, and we don’t have to devote any time to that, right? In order for our compost pile or bin to keep up with the kitchen and yard waste the average human produces, we must make sure the compost stays moist and is turned every so often.
Compost with the right amount of moisture should feel like a damp, wrung-out sponge. Compost that is too dry will take longer to decompose and compost that is too wet will rot and smell. Check the moisture of your compost once a week. If it is too dry, add some water. If it is too wet, add browns to help dry it out.
Turning the compost keeps it aerated and helps reduce compaction. It also moves material from the outside to the inside, where composting occurs. By turning compost once a week, you will keep the decomposition process moving at a steady pace, and should see results in a few months. A pitchfork or spading fork works best for turning compost.
There are different methods to composting, from a simple pile to a home-made bin to a store-bought bin that does almost all the work for you.
A compost pile is the easiest way to get started. All you need is an area outside that won’t be disturbed by domestic or wild animals. Start by piling up yard and kitchen waste in a corner of the yard. The work comes later, when it is time to turn the compost and check the moisture level.
Home-made compost bins can be as simple as some chicken wire and rebar, or wooden pallets. Or for the carpentry enthusiast, it can be built to look like a little outhouse or cottage. Just make sure that there is an easy way to open it and turn the compost. These compost bins are basically ways to conceal the compost pile.
Store-bought compost bins come in many shapes, sizes and prices. A rolling bin is a round composter that can be rolled around to mix and aerate the compost. A tumbler is a composting bin that is designed to make turning the compost an easy process. Enclosed bins are great for people with limited space, but the composting process is slower.
Where to compost
Composting can occur in any corner of a yard or even indoors. A garbage can bioreactor or worm bin can be kept right under the kitchen counter.
What to compost
Any organic matter can be added to a compost pile. Here is a list of things that are good for a compost pile:
- Kitchen fruit and vegetable scraps
- Egg shells
- Coffee grounds and filters
- Yard waste, such as grass clippings, leaves, weeds and other plants
- Wood chips and sawdust
- Nut shells
- Shredded paper – both newspaper and office paper (as long as it is clean)
- Cardboard rolls from toilet paper and paper towels
- Hair and fur
- Lint from the dryer and vacuum cleaner
- Wood-burning fireplace ashes
- Animal manure from herbivores (horses, rabbits, etc. Do not use cat or dog manure)
Why should I compost?
There are many great reasons to compost, even if you don’t have a garden in which to use the humus.
- Reduces the amount of waste that goes into the landfill
- Converts organic waste into a useful product
- Suppresses plant diseases and pests
- Reduces or eliminates the need for chemical fertilizers
- The product, humus, is nutrient-rich and helps gardens – both flower and vegetable gardens – grow healthier
- Nutrients that are removed when yard trimmings are bagged and tossed can be put back into the nutrient cycle. This reduces the need for fertilizers.
Do’s and Don’ts
- Do turn, turn, turn!
- Do get the kids involved – composting is fun!
- Do chop kitchen waste into small pieces and crush egg shells – this speeds decomposition.
- Do expose your compost to sunlight – it helps speed up the composting process.
- Do add a lot of organic waste at a time – this helps the compost heat up, which leads to faster decay.
- Do use your humus when there are no identifiable parts, like food items, grass or leaves.
- Do look for humus to be soil-like, earthy smelling and crumbly.
- Don’t add too many greens – this will create an unpleasant odor.
- Don’t add dairy products (cheese, butter, milk, yogurt, egg yolks) – these create odors and attract pests like rodents and flies.
- Don’t add meat or fish products – these create odors and attract pests like rodents and flies.
- Don’t add fat, grease, lard or oil – these create odors and attract pests like rodents and flies.
- Don’t add pet wastes (cat or dog feces, cat litter) – this waste may contain parasites, pathogens, bacteria and viruses harmful to humans.
- Don’t add plant matter treated with chemicals – the chemicals might kill beneficial composting microbes.
- Don’t add insect-ridden or diseased plants – the insects and diseases might survive the composting process and transfer back to healthy plants.
- Don’t add coal or charcoal ash – contains substances harmful to plants.
- Don’t use colored paper – it may be colored with inks that contain heavy metals and other toxic materials.
Vermicomposting is composting with worms. These little guys do most of the work for you!
Decide where you want to keep your worm bin. The worms need to be kept at a temperature of about 55-77 degrees Fahrenheit for optimal reproduction and food waste processing. Worm bins, when kept properly, do not create an odor and can be kept indoors. If you don’t want to keep it inside, make sure the bin you have can be properly insulated.
There are bins you can buy, and bins you can make. Store-bought ones are ready to use, but cost more.
A simple, home-made, indoor worm bin can be made from a plastic storage bin with a lid. Worms like the dark, so choose a bin that is made from a plastic that light cannot pass through. Drill holes into the lid and around the sides of the bin. The holes need to be small enough so the worms will not escape. The holes around the sides of the bin need to be close to the top – this will allow for adequate air circulation. If you would like to catch any compost tea, or liquid that drips off the compost, drill small holes in the bottom of the bin and place the bin on a tray or cookie sheet. You nay need to elevate the bin by using bricks or wooden blocks, to allow the liquid to drip freely.
Red wigglers or redworms are the best type of worm for Vermicomposting. Night crawlers do not survive as well in the composting conditions. Worms can be purchased from dealers or online. About 1,000 worms (1 pound) can recycle the amount of kitchen waste a family of 4 produces in a week.
Shredded newspaper and white office paper can be used for bedding. You may also use shredded leaves, hay, straw, dead plants, sawdust or peat moss. A bit of soil or sand can be added to give the worms grit for their digestive systems. Almost any organic matter that goes in a compost pile can go in a worm bin.
EXCEPTION: Do not add acidic fruit or vegetable waste. This changes the pH of the compost and will kill the worms. Do not add citrus fruit waste or tomatoes.
Add more bedding after harvesting the compost or when it looks like it is getting low. The worms recycle their bedding as well as food waste, so it must be replenished as needed.
Feeding the Worms
When adding waste to the worm bin, pull back the top layer of bedding, place waste in the bin, then cover.
Worm bins need moisture, just like other compost bins. Don’t forget to water your worms. You want the bedding to be moist, but not soaked. Just like a compost pile, the bedding should be like a damp, wrung-out sponge. A spray bottle works well.
When your worms have had enough time to recycle kitchen waste, it is time to harvest the worm castings. Worm castings are what the worm produces after breaking down kitchen scraps. Castings are dark brown, earthy-smelling, and crumbly, just like humus from the compost pile. There are three ways to harvest the castings, or finished compost. One way is to use a screen with a frame. This can easily be made from 2 x 4s and mesh. Sift the worms and large pieces of compost out. The finished compost will fall through the screen. The second way is to move all of the material in the bin to one side and place new bedding material and food waste in the empty side. The worms will migrate to the new food, and you can scoop the castings out easily. The third way is to place compost in small piles on a tarp in the sun or under bright lights. Since worms don’t like light, they will move to the bottom of the piles. After about 10 minutes, remove the upper inch or so from the piles until you start to see worms. Continue doing this until you have very small piles, then combine the piles into one. You should end up with a pile of finished compost and a ball of worms. Now you are ready to start composting again.