Everyone wants to live lighter on the planet, but some earth-friendly options are harder to implement than others. Thankfully, there are some simple ways that you can lower your impact on the environment while saving you money and benefiting your garden in the process. The most obvious step, of course, is making your own compost. Not only will you be saving your food and yard waste from sitting in a landfill, you’ll also come away with a high-quality garden amendment that’s as good for your vegetables as it is for the greater environment.
Adding compost to your garden is one of the best ways to improve your soil fertility, as well as efficiently get rid of kitchen and yard waste without it costing you any time or money.
What is compost (really)?
The word ‘compost’ is thrown around so casually in organic gardening circles that some people are confused what the term truly means. Put simply, composting is the science of efficiently decomposing garden and yard waste in order to make a potent soil amendment that adds nutrition back to your soil. Composting is a completely natural process, similar to what happens in nature every year to the leaf litter on the forest floor.
What are the benefits?
There’s a lot to like about making and using your own compost. Not only is it an easy way to divert over 30% of your household waste away from the landfill, but it’s also a simple way to create a high-quality form of humus for your lawn and garden. Your plants will show you how much they appreciate the influx of nutrients by bringing out their boldest hues and biggest blooms. Compost helps your plants from the bottom up by introducing a host of beneficial organisms to the soil that helps break down organic material and aerate the soil, all while making your plants better suited to fend off disease.
Best of all, compost is good for the environment because it offers a natural alternative to toxic chemical fertilizers that too often pollute our water systems.
How does it work?
Making your own compost is easier than you think. So long as you have a compost bin or compost pile location picked out, nature will do the hard work for you. When you combine your food scraps and other organic waste material into a pile and give it an occasional stir, you soon create a microbially-rich material that heats up and quickly rots into a blend of soil benefiting microbes, bacteria, and fungi, far faster than it would naturally decompose. The key to good compost is creating a blend of green material and brown material and getting the decomposition process hot enough that the system can maintain itself with only the addition of extra material by you.
The types of material you want to add to a compost pile are categorized as green and brown material.
Examples of Brown Material (2/3 pile):
- fall leaves
- dead flowers and other plant material
- finely chopped wood and bark chips
- sawdust from untreated wood
- shredded newspaper
Examples of Green Material (1/3 pile):
- fruit and vegetable scraps
- coffee grounds
- grass and plant clippings
- manure from non-carnivores (cow, horse, chicken)
Material That Should Never be Composted:
- anything with excessive amounts of meat, oil, fat or grease
- feces from carnivores (dogs and cats)
- dairy products
- diseased plant materials
- weeds that have already gone to seed
- sawdust from treated wood
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Tips for Starting a Basic Compost Pile
Starting a successful compost pile comes down to following a few key steps.
First, find the right location for starting your pile. It’s important to choose a place with partial sun and far away from standing water. It’s also best to choose a spot out of reach of dogs and other meat-eating animals in search of a snack.
When you begin your pile, make sure it starts on bare ground in order to allow worms and soil micro-organisms to access it. Start by laying twigs or straw a few inches deep in order to create a base layer that allows for easy drainage while also aerating the pile. Add alternating layers of green and brown materials, and sprinkle wood ash between the layers if you have some available. Build out your pile until it’s at least 3 feet wide and no higher than five feet. This is the optimal size, as it’s large enough to heat up efficiently but not so large that the pile holds on to too much moisture.
After your pile is set, keep it partially moist in order to stop it from drying out and turning to dust. It’s usually best to keep the pile covered when you aren’t adding more material to it, in order to help it retain moisture and heat. Wood, plastic sheeting and even carpet scraps all work well for this.
Every few weeks, it’s a smart idea to give the pile a quick turn with a pitchfork or shovel. Not only does this aerate the pile, but it also speeds up the decomposition process, especially for larger objects. This is the best time to add new material to the pile.
A basic pile is just the beginning when it comes to starting your own compost pile. There are dozens of ways to modify the process to get exactly the results you want. Below are some of the different ways that the basic process of composting can be adjusted.
- Hot composting: For the truly serious gardener, hot composting will provide you with a compost pile that turns into the soil faster than you can imagine. By regulating the materials you add with the precision of a chemist and frequently turning the entire pile, you can produce high-quality compost in as little as a month or two.
- “No Turn” Composting: If you want a compost pile you can leave alone to do its thing, the no turn compost method might be for you. The trade secret is to mix in enough coarse material into the pile (like straw and small sticks) to create pockets of air that naturally aerate the pile without you having to touch it. When mixed correctly, this form of compost breaks down just as fast as regular and might even have a higher nitrogen content. You can add fresh material to the top of the pile and harvest the compost from the bottom.
- Composting leaves: Wondering what to do with all those leaf piles you raked up in the fall? It turns out you can compost them all by themselves! Simply start the pile in a shaded place where it can get good drainage and pile the leaves into a four-foot pile, adding a layer of dirt between each foot of leaves. Keep the pile damp enough that when you squeeze a handful from deep inside a few drops come out. Don’t pack it too tightly in order to leave room for air to circulate. Within four to six months the pile should have decomposed into a dark and crumbly material that’s a great organic soil amendment.
- Enclosed Compost Bins: If you only have a small yard or want to keep your messy compost pile out of site, an enclosed compost bin is a smart solution for producing a tidy, efficient composting system. There are two different types of enclosed compost bins on the market today: stationary and tumbler.
- Stationary compost bins can be as simple as a trash can with aeration holes cut in it, a ventilated cage made from fencing material or even a wooden crate made from old pallets. The key to a successful stationary bin is that it retains heat and moisture while also allowing airflow throughout the bin. These bins can make great compost, but a drawback is that they make it almost impossible to turn the material.
- Tumbler compost bins also go by the name compost digester. They are usually in the form of drums or tumblers and provide a completely enclosed space for compost to be created. These containers act as insulation in order to keep moisture and heat in the pile, and they are designed to be simple to turn in order to keep the microbes aerated and active throughout the decomposition process. Though tumbler bins are remarkably effective at creating compost, they tend to have a small capacity, which makes them better suited to small urban backyards rather than rural properties.
Best Tips For Success
When you look at the facts, making your own compost is truly a win for your garden, the planet, and your wallet. With a little time and plenty of experimentation, you shouldn’t have any problem turning your organic waste materials into a high-quality soil additive.
If you find yourself coming up with some problems or questions, these tips should help you find your way to success.
- Keep more carbon than nitrogen in your pile. A good rule of thumb is to shoot for one-third green material and two-thirds brown. Piles need the bulk of brown material in order to allow oxygen to get through, and too much nitrogen produces stinky piles that decompose slowly.
- Activate your compost. Kickstart the decomposition process by adding some compost ‘activators’ to your piles like grass clippings, comfrey leaves, young weeds and even aged chicken manure.
- Keep insects away by covering sweet smelling fruit and vegetable scraps with a heavy layer of brown material or grass clippings.
- Avoid unpleasant odors by remembering not to add bones or meat scraps to the pile and by covering every “ripe” new addition with plenty of neutral-smelling brown material like straw or sawdust. If the problem gets out of control, the addition of lime or calcium can help neutralize the smell.