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Curious about composting but not sure where to begin? Don't fret! Consider HOMEGROWN member Cornelia's early composting roots: "I have been an inadvertent composter since I was a wee schoolgirl," she writes. "The first time I ate lunch in the school cafeteria, I clearly recall my teacher pointing out a special garbage pail designated for certain food scraps that he would take home and put in a pile for his garden. Our leftovers helped his garden plants become healthy and resilient!

"While I didn’t fully understand the concept of feeding his plants my salad scraps at the tender age of six, I got the basic gist: Composting is a simple way to add nutrient-rich humus to soil, thereby promoting plant growth and revitalizing your garden!" Well said! Ready to get started? Or need a little more convincing? In either case, read on.

 

THE BENEFITS OF COMPOSTING

 1. Organic fertilizer is expensive, but compost is free! Why spend oodles on pricey organic fertilizers when compost is free, not to mention easy to make? All you need to get started is a container drilled with some aeration holes—or not; more on that below. From there, you'll simply add your compostable materials (food scraps, yard clippings, bits of paper; see the full list of approved items below) and wait for the pile to become the rich, nutrient-laden humus that gardens need.

 

2. Compost is good for the environment! Not only does composting give you a way to recycle food and organic materials that otherwise might have ended up in a landfill (as much as 30 percent of waste can be diverted by composting), but compost has all kinds of other environmental benefits. Compost introduces beneficial organisms that help aerate soil, ward off plant diseases, and break down organic matter. Compost also eliminates the need for chemical soil additives—aka icky fertilizers.

 

3. Compost revitalizes soil and plants! Compost feeds your soil, which in turn feeds your plants. Compost helps create healthy soil structure, texture, aeration, and water retention. It loosens clay soils and increases water capacity in sandy soils, which in turn promotes soil fertility and healthy root development. Compost also acts as food for microrganisms, which help keep your soil pH balanced. 

 

WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PASSIVE AND MANAGED COMPOST?

Passive composting requires less time and effort. Basically, it involves raking your yard waste, and possibly other organic materials, into a freestanding pile or pen. (Option B: Filling yard-waste bags and letting them sit.) The pile compresses over time as things settle. After a year or two, the bottom layer, at least, is compost and is ready to go into your garden.

 

Managed composting involves more work than the passive version, but it produces compost in as few as three to four weeks, depending on the type, amount, chopping, and mixing of the materials. Managed piles must be turned frequently, kept moist, hot, aerated, and monitored. More below.

WHAT BELONGS IN MY COMPOST?

Compostable materials include food scraps (fruits, veggies, bread); paper products (coffee filters, brown bags, tea bags); and organic materials (plants, leaves, straw, soil, wood). See the handy table below for a listing of what can go into your compost pile, courtesy of EarthEasy.

 

Compostable materials fall into two categories: carbon based ("browns") and nitrogen based ("greens"). Healthy compost requires a balance between these two elements. Carbon helps keep things ventilated, while protein-rich nitrogen stimulates enzyme growth. A standard ratio is two-thirds carbon/brown to one-third nitrogen/green, allowing for oxygen penetration. Too much nitrogen creates smelly, heavy compost.

 

MATERIAL

CARBON OR NITROGEN?

NOTES

 table scraps

Nitrogen

 add with dry carbon items

 fruit & vegetable scraps

Nitrogen

 add with dry carbon items

 eggshells

neutral

 best when crushed

 leaves

Carbon

 leaves break down faster when shredded

 grass clippings

Nitrogen

 add in thin layers so they don't mat into clumps

 garden plants

neutral

 use disease-free plants only

 lawn & garden weeds

Nitrogen

 only use weeds which have not gone to seed

 shrub prunings

Carbon

 woody prunings are slow to break down

 straw or hay

Carbon

 straw is best; hay (with seeds) is less ideal

 green comfrey leaves

Nitrogen

 excellent compost 'activator'

 pine needles

Carbon

 acidic; use in moderate amounts

 flowers, cuttings

Nitrogen

 chop up any long woody stems

 seaweed and kelp

Nitrogen

 rinse first; good source for trace minerals

 wood ash

Carbon

 only use ash from clean materials; sprinkle lightly

 chicken manure

Nitrogen

 excellent compost 'activator'

 coffee grounds

Nitrogen

 filters may also be included

 tea leaves

Nitrogen

 loose or in bags

 newspaper

Carbon

 avoid using glossy paper and colored inks

 shredded paper

Carbon

 avoid using glossy paper and colored inks

 cardboard

Carbon

 shred material to avoid matting

 corn cobs, stalks

Carbon

 slow to decompose; best if chopped up

 dryer lint

Carbon

 best if from natural fibers

 sawdust pellets

Carbon

 high carbon levels; add in layers to avoid clumping

 wood chips / pellets

Carbon

 high carbon levels; use sparingly

WHAT DOESN'T BELONG IN COMPOST?

1. Meat, fish, and bones create odor-causing, pest-
attracting bacteria—not beneficial for plants or soils.

 

2. Perennial weeds and diseased plants. These can thrive in the hot compost environment and, in turn, can spread to plants and soil.

 

3. Pet manures. Pet waste should not be introduced to compost that will be used for food crops. But if you'd like to limit the amount of waste you're sending to the landfill, check out Joan's Dog Poop Composter 101. (Rabbits and chickens are another story; see number 5 in the next section.)

 

4. Fruit peels or plant clippings treated with chemical pesticides or herbicides. As with diseased plants, pesticide residue can contaminate your compost pile.

 

HOW DO I START COMPOSTING?

1. If you're able, you can start your compost pile directly on the ground, which will allow worms and other creepy-crawlies to aerate the compost naturally. Bonus: In the future, you can plan a garden atop the spot, since the soil beneath will eventually be rich and fertile.

2. Some urban and suburban areas, however, have restrictions on composting and may require your compost pile to be fully enclosed, thus discouraging the snacking, and resulting proliferation, of certain common city critters. By that, we mean rats. If you have to use a bin, you can build your own (more info below), but be sure to drill holes for aeration—and find a proper cover! You'll also want a smaller covered container to keep inside for collecting kitchen scraps until you add them to the pile.

3. Either way, start with a base layer of twigs or straw to aid drainage and aeration.

4. Then add moist and dry materials in alternating layers. Moist materials include food scraps, tea bags, and seaweed. Dry materials include straw, leaves, sawdust, and wood.

5. To activate and accelerate your compost, add greens like clover, buckwheat, wheatgrass, comfrey leaves, grass clippings, young weeds and aged chicken manure.

6. Keep the pile moist by watering it occasionally or by letting rain seep in. If you've got a freestanding pile, cover it with wood or plastic sheeting to retain moisture and heat. As Toni writes in a recent blog post, "The perfect compost should leave your hand moist, but not dripping wet, when you squeeze it."

7. If you've got a tumbler-style bin, make sure you turn the compost regularly. If you've got a pile or a bin that you can't rotate, be sure to stir often with a shovel, rake, or pitchfork.

8. Make sure you're getting some air in there, too. As Toni says: "Compost needs rigid materials like twigs or wood chips to create space for air to circulate throughout. Compost can reach temperatures of up to 160 degrees, and the microbes need to be able to breathe when the temp starts to rise. Those rigid materials also help encourage an even distribution of water, like stones in a brook."

9. Are things getting stinky? A layer of garden soil in your compost pile or bin will mask any food odors, and the soil's microorganisms will accelerate the process. Grass clippings, mulch, lime, or calcium will also do the trick. Ditto adding lime and calcium to fight fruit flies.

10. Are things getting steamy? Hot and sultry compost is ripe! The heat means the microorganisms are working hard, decomposing the added materials into rich humus.

WHERE DO I GET A COMPOST BIN?

You can buy one. Lots of home and garden stores carry them, and some towns and cities even offer discounts or rebates on compost bins and rain barrels. You can also make one:

• Here, HOMEGROWN member Jessi shares her plans for making a compost bin out of a trash can.

• These photos from Radishgirl Thymes illustrate how she made an open-air compost pile from old pallets.

• Heidi shares tips and photos of how she converted a nontumbling bin into a tumbler.

 

I'VE HEARD OF COMPOST TEA. WHAT IS IT?

Compost tea is essentially liquid compost that can be sprayed like a fertilizer—a plant booster, if you will. One way of making it is by soaking sacks of solid compost in water for hours or days, depending on size and concentration. This liquid is then strained and sprayed on plants to restore beneficial microorganisms and increase nutrient cycling. Learn how to make your own in this Compost Tea 101.

 

WHAT ABOUT VERMICOMPOSTING?

Vermicomposting, also known as worm composting, introduces red earthworms to the compost. These worms consume organic waste and then produce castings, aka worm poop, that you can use as mulch or as a topsoil additive. Most commonly, folks conduct vermicomposting indoors, as a means of breaking down food scraps. Chopping or shredding the scraps will help accelerate the process. Bonus: Vermicomposting does not require a carbon-nitrogen ratio. For more on vermicomposting:

 

• Check out this Treehugger primer on the subject.

• This Treehugger video covers building your own worm bin.

• We also like this University of Nebraska guide and this downloadable PDF from New Mexico State University.

• Don't want to go digging? Here's one source for buying red worms.

• HOMEGROWN member Travis shares more vermicomposting basics.

 

MORE ON COMPOSTING FROM HOMEGROWN.ORG

• Those are the basics, but we're just getting started! As mentioned above, you can learn how to make your own compost tea, make your own trash-can compost bin, and build a dog poop composter.

• Not sure what kind of soil you have in your backyard? Find out what you've got—and what you might need to supplement it with, compost or otherwise—in Rachel's Soil Testing 101.

• Revisit Toni's blog post for six things you might not be composting but could.

• When it comes to compost, everybody's got an opinion. Check out this discussion, in which HOMEGROWN members weigh various composting methods.

• HOMEGROWN member Domaphile shares tips on getting urban neighbors on board.

 

VIDEO: MORE OF A VISUAL LEARNER? NO PROBLEM! 

This video from the nonprofit Kitchen Gardeners International shares tips on successful organic composting.

SPEAK UP!

Got a question about compost or a tip to share? Post it below and keep the conversation rolling! You can always find more things to plant, grow, cook, preserve, make, craft, and tumble in the HOMEGROWN 101 library.

PHOTOS: (COMPOST IN HAND) CHRISTA; (BUMPER STICKER) ALIZA; (FOOD SCRAPS) CORNELIA(COMPOST AND BROCCOLI) LYNDA; (OPEN-AIR BOX) RANDALL; (STANDING TUMBLER) LORI; (GREEN SWEDISH COMPOSTER) DOMAPHILE; (PAIR OF TUMBLERS) RICK; (WORMS) KRISTEN

Tags: DIY, compost, free, gardening, organic, planting

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