Composting is another one of those things on my “swell” list—and it’s growing in popularity.
The funny thing is, composting isn’t a new concept. In fact, it’s been around for a long time. Mother Nature was composting on forest floors long before we even had a language with which to name the process.
Today’s composting techniques vary only slightly from what happens in nature. By taking waste—in the form of leaves, grass clippings, garden waste, and food scraps—and allowing it to break down naturally, you can create a rich, earthy fertilizer that does a laundry list of good things including:
• Providing plants with much-needed nutrients
• Stimulating healthy root development
• Increasing soil’s ability to hold water
• Improving soil structure, texture, and aeration
• Providing food for microorganisms in the soil, which in turn produce much-need nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous
Here’s info on how it works.
Where to put your compost pile
First you’ll want to figure out where to start your pile.
The best place for a compost pile is in the backyard. Ideally you’ll want to place the compost as close as possible to where the waste you throw there is generated—if you gather kitchen waste, try to position your pile near the back door of the house. If you are building your own compost pile, look for a level, well-drained piece of soil or lawn. If you live in a cool climate, position the compost in a sunny spot to attract heat. In hot areas, a shady position is best so the pile doesn’t dry out.
All sorts of enclosures are available to contain your compost. Inexpensive DIY options include creating bins made from wire mesh, shipping pallets, two-by-fours, plywood, or even stacked concrete or cinder blocks. You can even paint your posts or fencing for a decorative touch. Even if you live in an urban area, you can make your own compost bin.
Or if you plenty of space away from the house and don’t have to worry about neighbors complaining about your pile o’ compost, go binless. All your compost really needs is a nice patch of soil anyway.
What to compost
Almost any organic material can be thrown into a compost pile. Serious composters recommend balancing two parts brown material (carbon-rich items such as dried leaves, straw, and woodchips) with one part green material (fresh items such as grass clippings and kitchen scraps that are loaded with nitrogen). They say the right mix of materials is important—include too little carbon and the pile will break down too slowly; toss in too many nitrogen-rich items and you’ll have a smelly pile.
But the folks over at Mother Earth News say that you don’t have to worry so much about the balance if you’re creating a relatively small amount of compost. In other words, throw materials into the pile and even if it’s not the right ratio you’ll still have compost in the end. (On a side note, sign up for the Mother Earth Living e-mail tips on their site and you’ll receive the Mother Earth News Guide to Easy Composting free!)
To add to the “green” part of the pile, you can compost all sorts of things from the kitchen—banana peels, crushed eggshells, shredded paper, tea bags, and coffee grounds to name a few. Collect kitchen waste on the countertop in an attractive compost pail so you can minimize trips to the compost pile outside.
When you add kitchen waste, cover it with brown material so you don’t attract flies and critters (or end up with a smelly pile of … well, you know).
Composting techniques and troubleshooting
Unless you’re really gung-ho about producing lots of compost quickly, passive (or cold) composting is the way to go. It’s a relatively easy task: Collect the organic materials mentioned above in a pile, and eventually (in a year or so) the materials will break down into finished compost. All you have to do is turn the mix at least once a year (a composting fork can help) to keep air circulating. The final step: shovel it into a wheelbarrow to add to your garden when it’s ready, of course!
To get more compost sooner, you can speed up the process by creating managed (or hot) compost. This takes more work—from turning the pile more frequently to closely paying attention to the ratio of brown waste to green. Learn more about both techniques, the compost decomposition process, and what materials you can and can’t compost.
Compost piles are pretty low-maintenance, but if troubles do crop up they’re usually easy to fix. A soaker hose can help add moisture to a compost pile that’s too dry; adding more dry materials is all that’s needed to help a pile that’s too wet. Smelly compost may be the result of rotting fruits or veggies. To avoid the smell, be sure to bury food waste under a layer of brown materials.
Once the compost is ready
Finished compost is dark brown and crumbly and should smell—big shocker here—like earth. Some visible pieces of leaves and other ingredients are OK, but if too many materials aren’t broken down it’s probably not quite ready.
When do you use the compost? Some people say it’s best to spread it over a garden bed in late fall so by spring soil organisms have worked it into soil. Others recommend spreading compost two weeks before planting time in the spring. Regardless of when you do it, the benefits are the same.
Now, as much info as I crammed into this post, I didn’t cover even close to everything there is to know about compost. If you’re not into a massive missive on composting, just ask Martha for the basics. Or check out this fabulous, fun site dedicated to all things composting.
For a guide to compost you can actually take out in the garden with you, purchase a copy of Home Composting Made Easy (it’s only $3.99!).
The Home Know-It-All