By julieartz on February 24, 2008
In the last week or so, I've fielded a few questions from friends about compost. Then I also noticed a few comments on the various green blogs I read indicating that people had either tried composting and failed, or were too confused to even start it. So I wanted to provide some steps, some reassurance, and some resources on this, my favorite way to reduce waste and improve soil fertility.
What is compost?
Compost is, literally, fertile dirt. That is to say, not the barren gray top soil you'll find on a building site or in a conventional farmer's field. This is the good black stuff that smells sweet and makes nice little crumbly clumps. It contains the perfect balance of nutrients that your plants need to be healthy and that the microorganisms and beneficial insects like earth worms--key components of healthy soil--need to thrive.
You can make it yourself using common kitchen and yard wastes that would otherwise go in the landfill using a process Mother Nature has used to recycle things in the natural world since time began. Then you can use it in place of expensive mulches and chemical fertilizers. As a mulch, compost helps retain moisture and shade a plant's roots. As a soil amendment, compost breaks up heavy clay soils, allowing more water and air to penetrate to the root zone of garden plants and, if added in high enough quantities over time to keep the organic matter of the garden soil at 4-5%, can provide sufficient nutrients for even nitrogen-hungry vegetable growth.
I love Journey To Forever's thoughts on Nature's conspiracy to make more soil:
If you watch carefully to see what nature does as she goes about her daily round of chores, it's quite easy to start believing that the whole thing is a complicated, secretive conspiracy by soil micro-organisms to beget more soil micro-organisms. Nature's first concern is always to build more topsoil, and to protect it. It's easy to see why: no topsoil, not much nature either. The Earth's green carpet of living things is really just the Soil Creature's skin.
OK, how do I start?
Now is a great time to start because it's the beginning of the season and building a pile now will keep the growing season's clippings and cuttings out of the trash. If you are cramped for space, live in an apartment, or are particularly interested in vermiculture, worm composting might be for you. I've never tried this before myself, but it can be effective if you have a smaller quantity of waste (like only kitchen scraps because you live in an apartment) because there is a limit to how much the worms can eat. Check out the great resources at WormCompostingTips:
Worm composting (also known as vermicomposting) is the art of using worms to help you break down the organic waste you produce at home to create fertilizer for your garden. The worms will produce both a liquid fertilizer, and worm castings. Worm castings are a solid, odor free byproduct of worm digestion. You can collect your worm castings periodically and use them as a soil addition, soil conditioner, or even light mulch.
If you have more space, even a patio space for a small compost tumbler, this method will allow you to process a lot more waste. I'm really a fan of worm composting, but our family of four needs between 3-4 5 cubic foot compost bins to make sure we always have space for both food scraps and yard waste, so that quantity would not be feasible for worms.
To make a successful compost pile you need a balance of green materials like grass clippings and food scraps or brown materials like shredded paper, dried leaves, or sawdust. You simply make a bin, either in one of the many commercially available compost bins, in a wooden or chicken wire box somewhere in the neighborhood of 3-6' wide and no more than 3 feet high, or in a pit dug into the ground. If you need more space, build two bins, don't make one big one or it will be harder to manage and ultimately take too long to break down. We've used a combination of these different pile-types all with fairly good success. The most important thing is keeping your bin close enough to the kitchen & yard that are producing the inputs that you'll actually use the bin as much as possible.
Adding material to your new bin
Here's where the science behind composting can turn people off. Some books and articles provide diagrams with detailed information on how thick each layer of green and brown material should be, suggest alternating the layers with dirt to speed the process along, and recommend near-daily turning. This can be labor-intensive and frustrating, especially to the beginner. And it's just not necessary. That's not to say that those who follow the labor-intensive processes don't get good compost--they do, and they probably get it quicker than I do, but I spend much less time on my piles and always have plenty of compost for my garden each spring despite my lazy and unscientific methods ;)
Now, you're supposed to add two parts green material to one part brown material. However, the fact of the matter is if you are trying to compost all of your yard and kitchen scraps, you will almost always have more nitrogen (green materials) and not enough carbon (brown materials). Then, if you get really excited about the prospects of reducing waste, you'll start composting things like office paper (shredded works best), junk mail (no glossy colored paper, please, it can contain heavy metal inks), tissues, cotton balls, paper towels, and just about anything else you can get your hands on (paper plates after a picnic, egg cartons, drier lint). In fact, you can compost just about anything with the exception of what VegWeb lists here. But I'm getting ahead of myself!
A site in part shade conserves moisture while lending a bit of the sun's warmth in cooler weather, which helps the pile continue to cook down. This is necessary here in Colorado, but if you're in a really wet, warm climate, you may actually want a lid to keep water out.
Water, heat, and oxygen are the other essentials for composting. Compost should maintain the dampness of a wrung-out sponge, which in dry areas means supplemental water at least during the hot summer months. Consider running a drip irrigation line straight into the bin, but don't forget to move it aside before stirring or emptying the bin!
Speaking of stirring, while occasional stirring allows the compost to break down faster by allowing good oxygen penetration and the mixing of the carbon and nitrogen plant materials, daily or even weekly stirring is not a requirement to produce compost. A frequently-stirred pile may break down in 4-6 weeks, while an unstirred pile may have to wait until the following spring to be used. I use the no- or low-stir method and the end product is the same, it just takes longer to get there, which is fine by me. Also beware of over-stirring: in the winter months stirring compost allows heat to escape the pile and may stop the break-down if the center of the pile falls below 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
If you need a few more scientific tips on composting, the folks at CSU's Cooperative Extension offer this great fact sheet: http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/garden/07212.html.
I hope I've demystified compost a bit for you and shown you how easy it can be! We literally spend the minute it takes us to walk out our sliding glass door and deposit the day's food scraps into the bin and spin the tumblers (we purchased tumblers for the winter because food scraps are almost all nitrogen and can get stinky without some turning & additions of copious amounts of shredded junk mail) and each spring we're rewarded with the best fertilizer nature can provide--no petrochemicals (yes, the stuff you buy at Home Depot, unless it says otherwise, comes from petroleum), no waste in the landfill, very little effort. So go make it from scratch!
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