Composting: One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Treasure

I'm queen of my own compost heap & I'm getting used to the smell. -Ani DiFranco

The benefits of composting are many. For the organic gardener, it’s nature’s perfect soil amendment. For the money concious, it’s free. For the environmentalist, it is a simple way to be more green, starting…now! More than one-third of organic, fast-decomposing material from our kitchens and gardens end up in plastic trash bags that can take up to 1000 years to decompose. A few simple changes will reduce your contribution to the unnecessary waste and spruce up your lawn and garden at the same time!

What is Composting?

Composting is the process of micro organisms breaking down organic (once living) material into humus, a natural soil amendment. Microorganisms, fungi, insects, worms, mites and other biology convert the carbon from organic material into energy for their own use, releasing carbon dioxide.  The organisms also recycle the nutrients from the decaying plants into their own bodies and eventually back into the soil.  Other plants and microorganisms will use the carbon and nutrients released by the composting process, and the cycle begins again.  These organisms are extremely useful! Compost, the end product of the composting process, has nutrients that your plants use such as nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. Composting will improve your soil’s fertility, aeration, structure, and texture, as well as its ability to hold water.

How Do I Get Started?

It’s easy! Follow these steps below and be on your way to your own compost, commonly referred to as Black Gold.

  • First, choose a level, well-drained area. Certain conditions will speed up the decaying process, so you should consider a few things when choosing a location. In a colder climate, keep the pile in a sunny spot to trap solar heat, and look for some shelter to protect the pile from freezing cold winds. If you live in a warm, dry climate, locate the pile in partial shade so that it doesn't dry out too quickly.  During summer make sure the pile is watered every week or so to maintain appropriate moisture levels.
  • Create a compost bin; a structure used to store the organic material that saves space, hastens the decaying process, and keeps the pile looking neat. These structures range in size and price, from homemade mesh cages to store bought mechanical tumblers.
  • Collect your items to compost and add to the pile mixing well.  It is advised to shred any large materials to improve decomposition rate.  Shredding the material increases surface area, thus increasing the efficiency and speed of the compost.
  • The time it takes for your organic materials to turn to humus depends on how much you want to manage it. If you don’t have a lot of time, the pile will turn on its own, but it could take up to a year. If you want to be more involved, you can shred and turn the material and have humus as fast as 3 weeks! You will recognize humus as a brown, crumbly substance. To the surprise of many people, it has an earthy smell, which is not at all unpleasant.
  • Particle size is important.  Grinding, cutting, or chopping raw material creates more surface area for microbial activity and is easier to mix.  Woody branches that have not been ground make it difficult to turn a pile.  They also decompose very slowly.
  • Aeration:  The microorganisms responsible for fast decomposition need oxygen.  This is why a compost pile must be turned periodically.  A pile naturally becomes compacted over time due to rain, the constant breakdown of materials and gravity.  Use a pitch fork to turn the composting materials every three to four weeks.  And remember maintain proper moisture.

Materials for Compost

  • Kitchen Scraps - This includes vegetable and fruit peelings, eggshells, rinds, teabags, and coffee grinds.
  • Grass Clippings - A great source of nitrogen!
  • Garden Waste - Deadheaded flowers and weak plants are fine; just don’t add any weeds that have persistent roots.
  • Dried Leaves - After the kids jump through the pile, add the leaves to your compost bin!
  • Others - Algae, seaweed, lake moss; cardboard, hair, newspaper, pine needles, straw, livestock droppings such as horse, cow, sheep, chicken and rabbit in moderation.

Do NOT Compost:

  • Animal Products - Meat, fat, grease, oil, skin, bones
  • Fish Products - Stinky, Stinky
  • House Pet Droppings - Avoid using cat or dog droppings
  • Ashes - Not from coal or charcoal

Some Basic Vocabulary:

  • Aeration - Refers to the extent of air gaps in soil
  • Biodegradable - Capable of decaying through the action of living organisms.
  • Compost - A mixture of various decaying organic substances.
  • Decay - To deteriorate.
  • Decompose -  To separate or resolve into constituent parts or elements; disintegrate.
  • Humus - The dark organic material in soils, produced by the decomposition of vegetable or animal matter and essential to the fertility of the earth.
  • Soil Amendment - Any material added to a soil to improve its physical properties.
  • Organic Material - Matter which has come from once-living organisms; is capable of decay, or the product of decay; or is composed of organic compounds.
  • Organism - A form of life composed of mutually interdependent parts that maintain various vital processes.