Composting1 can be done anywhere, anytime. It’s happening in the wild everywhere, always. Of course, you won’t want to do this when it’s unpleasant to work outside, but the compost will still work. Composting slows down in the winter and speeds up in the summer. It is common for people in snowy locales to build compost piles in the fall, when the trees contribute their leaves, and leave the pile alone until spring, when the air and soil are warm enough to work. In moderate and hot climates, you can build a compost pile any day of the year.
1) 1 compost bin with lid – minimum 3 feet tall and 3 feet square, a little bigger is better for the compost, but get one that will fit your yard.*
2) 1 part kitchen scraps – this can be any food scraps from your kitchen (peels, teabags, coffee grounds, shells, leftovers), except meat and dairy.
3) 1 part green garden scraps – any leaves, greens, or weeds from your yard. Don’t add any weeds with seeds or runners if you don’t want them coming back, especially Bermuda grass, crabgrass, ivy, mint, or anything that is taking over your yard already; also avoid adding thorns from roses, bougainvillea, etc.
4) 1 part brown garden scraps – dead leaves, straw, any dead dried plants, even shredded newspaper
5) Water – a couple of gallons to moisten the pile at the start.
*A bin is not necessary for composting, but a lot of people find it helpful for managing the pile. Because almost all bins are plastic, made from petroleum, look for bins made from recycled plastic or mostly recycled plastic. If you are a do-it-yourself type, make one out of scrap wood or wood pallets. The Smith & Hawken Biostack bin is one of the best plastic bins, especially for turning a pile and accessing it daily.
How Do I Take Care of It?
Start off your compost pile with a bunch of dry stuff, like several handfuls of straw and dry leaves. Then add any kitchen scraps you have on hand, and any trimmings, lawn clippings or weeds from your garden. Top off the kitchen scraps with more leaves, straw, or weeds. As you build your pile, make sure to keep the ratio approximately one part “green matter,” food and plant debris such as grass clippings, (the nitrogen) to one part “brown matter,” dry leaves and woody plants (the carbon). Every week, water your pile for a minute. If it’s really dry, water more. If it is moist already, don’t water. The goal is to keep the whole pile as moist as a wrung-out sponge. The outside of the pile will always be a little dry, use your pitchfork to check the inside and see if it is moist enough. Every two weeks turn your pile with a pitchfork. The goal is to turn the pile inside out, flip the top to the bottom, and mix the whole pile up while you’re doing so. While turning it, you’ll start to see who’s moved in, such as worms, sow bugs, soldier fly larvae, or other organisms doing their composting work. If you notice it’s really dry, add water as you’re turning it. If it’s too wet or stinky or full of fruit flies, add more dry stuff (leaves, straw, shredded newspaper) to each layer as you turn.
When Is It Ready?
After a few weeks, your pile is going to be a lot smaller than when you built it – that’s good! It means the organisms are eating it up and turning it into finished compost. You’ll have finished compost when the following happens:
1) The pile is smaller than when it started.
2) You can’t recognize much of what you put in.
3) It has no smell or smells like fresh earth.
4) It looks darker, close to black (the color of humus).
5) It is not hot anymore.
Once your pile is finished composting, remove anything that you don’t want in your garden, like a piece of wood that didn’t decompose yet, or a corn cob that still looks like a corn cob – put those things in your next compost pile. Take the finished compost and use it as a soil amendment in your garden.
Using Your Compost
Compost can be used the following ways:
1) Dug into the soil and mixed with a fork as a soil amendment
2) Applied on top of the soil as a side dressing for plants (like mulch)
3) Used in potting soil mixes for potted plants and houseplants
4) Poured as a liquid fertilizer when mixed with lots of water
Compost improves soil texture, increases the organic matter available in the soil, increases nutrient exchange between plant roots and the soil, and generally brightens up all plants. The unseen life (good bacteria and fungus) in the finished compost rejuvenates plants and soils that have seen better days.
Adding Biocompostables to Your Compost Pile
The use of biodegradable plates, cups, and utensils as alternatives to plastic and polystyrene (Styrofoam) is on the rise. Made from sugarcane fiber, potato or corn starches, the tableware and eating utensils can be composted after use, instead of being thrown into landfill. When composting these products, keep in mind that they can take anywhere from a month to a year to fully degrade. However, it’s worth the wait, as it’s such a good feeling to compost your plate instead of throwing it into the trash! And the compost will do wonders for your garden.
Our favorite distributor of compostable tableware is a non-profit organization, World Centric. Check out their Web site to get a flavor for the types of products available today. You’ll also get ideas on how to turn your next outdoor function into a compost-generating opportunity.
1. From Paul Schmitt, master composter, Palo Alto, California