Composting 101

This corn brought to you courtesy of compost.

So you’ve decided to start composting, or are thinking about it. Yay! Let’s talk about why you should compost, and how easy it is to get started and keep it up.

Why should I compost?

Glad you asked! Here are some of the benefits of composting rather than throwing things into a landfill:

  1. Compost makes excellent soil for gardens. Composted soil is enriched with nutrients, such as nitrogen, which reduces or eliminates the need for chemical fertilizers in the garden.
  2. Good compost is expensive. Why pay for what you’re already making yourself, mostly hands-off?
  3. Food scraps and waste in landfills produce huge amounts of methane gas, contributing to the greenhouse effect. By composting, you’re reducing your carbon footprint in a major way.
  4. Composting is easy. If you’re already keeping a garbage can and a recycling bin, composting can be as simple as getting just one more container for your household waste.

Because we compost, reuse, and recycle in our household, we put out so little “garbage” that we don’t have a need for weekly garbage pickup – just a monthly, often bimonthly, trip to the recycling transfer station. It can be done!

Where can I compost?

You can compost in a fairly small, aerated container. You can purchase containers specifically made for composting, or create your own by drilling holes in a large plastic container with a lid (such as a storage bin or garbage can).

There are also countertop compost containers you can keep in your kitchen. These tend to be fairly small, and are meant to be emptied pretty often into either a larger container or outdoor compost pile. Either way, you’re going to eventually use the compost in your garden, or empty the compost into a larger outdoor pile.

We do a combination of all three – we put kitchen scraps in a small ceramic container in the kitchen, transfer those into an old covered cat litter box that we keep on our deck, and transfer the scraps to our larger compost pile in the yard. The pile is located in a shady spot away from the house, and covered with wooden pallets to keep critters out and composting materials in.

What if you have a small (or no) yard, with nowhere to use the compost? There are businesses that take compost, either by picking it up or having a drop-off location. Barring that, you likely have a gardening friend who would love to take your scraps for their plants!

How do I turn scraps into compost?

First, you want a container or location that keeps your compost aerated and away from sunlight and critters that would normally hang out in your garbage. Again, you can purchase a composting container, or create your own.

Next, you want to make sure your materials will compost well. What you want is a fairly even amount of the following types of decomposing material:

  • Brown Material. Think paper, dead yard waste (twigs, leaves, etc.), and the like.
  • Green Material. Think grass clippings, food scraps, coffee grounds, etc.

You also want enough water for aerobic decomposition, but not so much that your compost is drowning. Otherwise, you’ll create anaerobic decomposition which, to put it politely, smells like an unflushed toilet. Your compost should smell like soil, and perhaps a bit like mushrooms, but certainly not foul-smelling.

Try to layer these materials evenly, and keep your scraps fairly small so they decompose faster.

Finally, you want to keep the compost turned and aerated. Every few days, shake your container, or use a shovel to physically turn your material for larger piles. If your pile does, in fact, smell like a toilet, don’t panic – just add more dry brown material to dry it out. If your pile is too dry, or if your container feels cool to the touch (indicating that your compost is not, well, decomposing) you can spray it with water.

Done correctly, your pile should produce usable compost within three months or so. Yay! Finished compost looks like black or dark brown soil. Large scraps should go back into your compost pile to finish decomposing.

What can I compost? What should not be composted?

Lots of things! Most of your food scraps can be composted, as well as other organic household compounds. Some specifics include:

  • Fruit and vegetable rinds, peels, and other scraps
  • Eggshells
  • Nutshells
  • Coffee grounds
  • Tea leaves and tea bags (be sure to remove any staples)
  • Yard waste (grass clippings, leaves, twigs, etc.)
  • Sawdust and wood chips
  • Fur and hair
  • Non-glossy paper (paper bags, paper towels, napkins, computer paper, newspaper, etc.)
  • Parchment and kraft paper suitable for composting (most is)
  • Cardboard
  • Cotton and wool
  • Fireplace ashes (be careful with this one, as wet ashes can create lye)

There are, however, things that should not be composted for good reason. These include:

  • Meat scraps (bones, trimmings, etc.) and dairy waste. These tend to attract unwanted critters, in addition to making your pile smell bad.
  • Black walnut shells, twigs, and leaves. Black walnut can actually prevent things from growing.
  • Glossy paper. These usually contain plastics and other chemicals not suited for gardening.
  • Excessive fat (oils, lard, butter, meat grease, etc.). While we compost small amounts of fat (mostly in the form of what we soak up in paper towels), a large amount of oil or fat in a compost pile can prevent proper decomposition, as well as attract unwanted guests.
  • Diseased or otherwise infested plants. You can spread the disease or infestation right back into your garden. Nope.
  • Yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides. These prevent organisms from decomposing your materials. Also, don’t put pesticides back into the earth. Geez.
  • Charcoal ash. This might contain chemicals harmful to plants and beneficial organisms.
  • Plastic, metal, Styrofoam, and wax (including wax paper). These don’t decompose, and can prevent the rest of your compost from decomposing properly. Make sure all material you do compost is free of staples, tape, and other non-compostable materials.

If the rules seem like a lot, keep a list near your bins or containers to remind you of what can be composted. Eventually, it becomes second nature, and you’ll wonder why you ever threw out such useful compostable material in the first place. Yay, compost!

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