Compost is good; sloppy garbage heaps are bad. Learn how to create compost and not a mound of rotten trash.
How to Create Compost
Step 1: Choose a Location
Decide where to place your compost pile(s). If you have a yard, choose somewhere convenient but out of sight. You can either put your compost directly on the ground or in a composter. If you have an apartment or condo, you will need to purchase a composter you can keep on your balcony or patio. Never keep compost in an air-tight or closed container with no ventillation.
Step 2: Start a Pile
If you don’t want to buy a composter from a home supply store, just start a pile on the ground. Try to throw in 2/3 stemmy / woody materials to 1/3 kitchen scrap materials.
Caution: Be sure you are only putting compostable materials in your pile. Attempting to compost meat or dairy products can result in a ruined compost pile and a smelly situation!
Step 3: Gather Tools (kitchen bin, pitch fork, gardening gloves, face mask, thermometer)
Get a small countertop bin with lid and start saving any compostable food scraps. Again, no meat, no bones, no cheese. *Eggshells are okay, but no eggs. Empty into compost pile when full. Repeat. Use the pitch fork to fold the compost pile. Using gloves and a face mask is strongly encouraged to protect from fungus spores.
Serious gardeners may want to track the internal temperature of their compost piles. This helps ensure the best possible levels of nutrients in the final product.
Step 4: Maintain
Use the pitch fork to gently fold new compost in with old compost once every few days. After about a month, you will notice a rich brownish black dirt building up at the bottom of the pile. The longer you let it build up, the more “dirt” you will end up with. If your compost pile begins smelling like trash (as opposed to smelling ‘earthy’) and/or presents lots of flies, you may need to increase the ratio of dry materials to wet. Dried leaves, lawn clippings, hay, tree trimmings, and even nutrient-depleted soil from a garden bed will work.
Step 5: Use Your Compost
Once your compost pile has enough broken down matter, you can begin ‘harvesting’. Sprinkle finished product onto your lawn or mix compost with garden soil to provide plants with the best vitamins and nutrients.
Why Compost Saves Resources
Imagine you are enjoying a juicy red apple. You take bite after bite enjoying the sweet crunchy goodness. Then once you are thoroughly sticky with apple-y goodness you reach the core. Now you have a conundrum on your hands. What should you do with the refuse? Throw it in the back seat of the car until it becomes a mysterious smell days later. Tuck it away in the bottom of your lunch box. Pitch it in the trashcan. What if instead of becoming another piece of trash, that apple core could become a valuable resource?
Many of us have magical thinking when it comes to disposing our waste. We put whatever we want to get rid of in our trash can, set it by the curb, and it disappears. It does not disappear though. It gets piled into a landfill and becomes not only an environmental hazard, but a wasted opportunity. What would happen though if we dug those coffee grinds, apple peels, and eggshells out of the trash and place them in a composting pile? Composting is a means to turn our organic waste into a useful resource.
There are so many different ways to compost. It is truly an artful science that can get as complicated as you would like. If you are looking for a simpler composting route, there are some companies that will collect your scraps like recycling. This means of composting, has a cost associated with it and can be challenging to get depending on your location and volume. If, however, you are a do it yourself kind of composter, there are numerous resources at your disposal.
Worms, microorganisms and thermometers – oh my!
According to the Basics of Composting, “Compost is simply decomposed organic material. The organic material can be plant material or animal matter…it’s really a very simple and natural process that continuously occurs in nature, often without any assistance from mankind…The trick is to maximize the process of decomposition, while avoiding the unpleasant effects of the natural process of decaying matter. Compost is good; sloppy garbage heaps and rotting food are bad.” So how do compost novices create a compost pile and not a mound of trash and rotten food? The first step is to choose your location wisely.
Where to Put a Compost Pile
If you have a garden, place your compost pile nearby if possible. The location, however, should not be an eyesore. After you have chosen a location, it’s good to establish some sort of barrier to your compost pile. You may purchase a compost bin or make your own compost area simply by putting up a small pen using recycled wooden shipping pallets. The whole point is to discourage your dog from rummaging. A separation barrier also keeps your compost out of sight while still convenient.
Types of Compost Bins
Composters come in two general types: open bin and closed bin.
Open Bin Composters
An open bin is exactly what is sounds like. The compost is usually held in place with chicken wire, wood or some other confining materials that leaves the pile open to the air.
- Open bins easily collect rain water
- Open bins are very convenient for adding materials
- Open bins can attract rodents, flies, bees, and bears
- Open bins can become too wet, if not covered
- Open bins may be more difficult to mix (more on that later)
- Open bins may be an eyesore to your neighbors
Closed Bin Composter
A closed bin composter is similar to a trashcan, except it is made of material that is friendly to micro-organisms, the creatures that break down your kitchen scraps and lawn clippings into nutrient-rich compost.
- Compost containers will rarely attract pests
- Upright containers may be more aesthetically appealing
- Rotating drums are usually easier to mix or turn
- Rotating drums are easy to unload
- Rotating drums usually have “screening” options
- Enclosed containers usually require you to add water
- Upright containers may be very difficult to mix or turn
After you have decided which type of compost bin to use, gather your tools. You will need a container to collect food scraps in the kitchen. Most experts recommend ceramic or stainless steel containers, but a regular five-gallon bucket or trash can with lid is an acceptable alternative. You may also need a pitch fork to turn the composts, a shovel, and a garden cart to haul big loads of material. If you decided to do hot composting, you may also need a thermometer to keep track of the temperature.
Now that you are equipped with the right location, type of bin, and tools for the job, you need to know what to compost. They type of materials you compost all depend on what nutrients you want for your garden or lawn. Eartheasy.com has this handy reference chart:
Now that you know what you will be composting, the trick is to decide what type of composting you want to do. If you are in no hurry and perhaps live next to a forest, you can do cold composting, which is basically allowing nature and her worm to take their course. This is the easier of the option, but it could take years for the material to decompose. Most likely, you will choose hot composting. The Basics of Composting describes the process of hot composting:
When we provide the micro bugs with a good mixture of browns and greens, as well as some water and air, decomposition can be very efficient. This is known as “hot” composting, sometimes call “aerobic” composting, because the microbes that require air have sufficient air to live, eat, and reproduce quickly. The compost pile can attain temperatures as high as 160 degrees Fahrenheit, which will kill some weed seeds, make most of the microbes very active, but will deter worms and some other critters. As the pile cools, the worms will return to assist in the decomposition. Hot composting is fast, and a well maintained compost heap can fully decompose in several weeks.
Once you have set-up your composting pile, they you need to maintain it by keeping it a small size and turning your compost on a regular basis. Most compost experts recommend having multiple composting piles. This is because you do not want to restart the composting process every time you add fresh material. After is is set-up properly, the lovely microorganisms will feast away on the rotting delicacies you have provided. Though you can purchase a compost starting kit, it is not necessary to do so since the decomposing microorganisms are already present in nature.
As wonderful and useful as composting piles are, there are risks associated whenever you work with decomposing material. InterNACHI recommends utilizing these precaution every time you work with your composting pile:
How to Avoid Potential Hazards of Composting
The following general safety precautions should be followed in order to avoid transmission of dangerous fungi, bacteria and other pathogens found in compost:
- Always wear dry, breathable gloves to avoid direct contact with the skin, and to protect yourself from injury while using gardening tools and implements.
- Wear protective footwear that covers your skin adequately to avoid direct contact with compost. Do not wear them anywhere except outdoors.
- When stirring and tilling the compost, which is required on a regular basis in order for it to process and break down, always wear a nose and mouth guard or dust mask to avoid inhaling the various spores that will become airborne during tilling and turning.
- Avoid tilling on windy days.
- Do not store compost in fully closed or airtight containers. Without any air, it can actually become combustible.
- Wash your hands after dealing with compost. While this suggestion may sound obvious, many garden enthusiasts get so absorbed with their activities that they forget the potential dangers from poisoning.
- If you develop a severe cough or infection of the skin (especially if there is an open sore or puncture wound), seek medical attention immediately. You may require antibiotics or a tetanus shot.
As with any environmental pursuit, common sense must be used.
There a big pile of compost in your backyard…now what?
How to Use Compost
What do you do once you have all that material ready to use? Here are some ideas:
- Dress around the base of vegetable plants in your garden to fertilize and control insects.
- Fertilize your lawn, shrubs and other landscaping.
- Use compost in the place of potting soil or store-bought mulch.
- Build up the nutrient content of depleted (over-worked) garden soil by tilling into ground before planting.
- If you are not much of a gardener, you can sell the composted material to gardeners and farmers alike.
By Dee Gross