Compost is a mixture of various decaying organic substances, such as dead leaves or manure, used for fertilizing soil. Compost should be thought of as one component of a healthy garden bed, and it should be used as a soil additive, not used as the growing medium itself.
Compost is a very important supplement you can give your garden soil, and is a simple way to add nutrient-rich humus, which fuels plant growth and restores vitality to depleted soil. It's also free, easy to make and good for the environment.
Benefits of Composting
It's a great soil conditioner: With compost, you are creating rich humus for your lawn and garden. This adds nutrients to your plants and helps retain moisture in the soil.
Recycles kitchen & yard waste and reduces landfill waste: Composting can divert as much as 30% of household waste away from the garbage can. Which in turn keeps it out of the landfill. One-third of landfill waste is made up of compostable materials.
You introduce beneficial organisms to the soil: Microscopic organisms that are in compost help to aerate the soil, break down organic material for plant use and ward off plant diseases.
It's good for the environment: Composting offers a natural alternative to chemical fertilizers.
What to Compost
|Table Scraps||N||Add with dry carbon items|
|Fruit & Vegetable Scraps||N||Add with dry carbon items; Let any soggy items dry out|
|Eggshells||Neutral||Best added when crushed|
|Leaves||C||Breaks down faster when shredded|
|Grass Clippings||N||Add in thin layers so they don't mat into clumps|
|Garden Plants||-||Use disease free plants|
|Lawn & Garden Weeds||N||Only use weeds that haven't gone to seed|
|Shrub Prunnings||C||Woody prunnings are slow to break down|
|Straw or Hay||C||Straw is best; Hay (with seeds) is less ideal|
|Green Comfrey Leaves||N||Excellent compost 'activator'|
|Pine Needles||C||Acidic; Use in moderate amounts|
|Flower Cuttings||N||Chop up any long woody stems|
|Seaweed and Kelp||N||Apply in thin layers; Good source for trace minerals|
|Wood Ash||C||Only use ash from clean materials; Sprinkle lightly|
|Chicken Manure||N||Excellent compost 'activator'|
|Coffee Grounds||N||Filters may also be included|
|Tea Leaves||N||Loose or in bag|
|Newspaper||C||Avoid using glossy paper and colored inks|
|Shredded Paper||C||Avoid using glossy paper and colored inks|
|Cardboard||C||Shred material to avoid matting|
|Corn Cob / Stalk||C||Slow to decompose; Best if chopped up|
|Dryer Lint||C||Best if from natural fibers|
|Sawdust Pellets||C||High carbon levels; Add in layers to avoid clumping|
|Sawdust||C||Should be mixed or scattered thinly to avoid clumping; Be sure sawdust is clean, with no machine oil or chain oil residues from cutting equipment|
|Wood Chips / Pellets||C||High carbon levels; Use sparingly|
You can also add garden soil to your compost. A layer of soil will help to mask any odors, and micro-organisms in the soil will accelerate the composting process.
Different items used for composting decompose at different rates but they will all eventually break down. Speeding up the composting process is helped by chopping the larger material into smaller pieces.
What Not to Compost
- Meat, Bones or Fish Scraps (They will attract pests.)
- Dairy or Fatty Foods (They wreck havoc on the array of microorganisms, bugs, worms, etc. in your compost pile. They also attract rodents and scavengers.)
- Perennial Weeds (They can be spread with the compost and grow in your gardens.)
- Diseased plants (Diseases can be spread to healthy plants.)
- Pet Manures in compost that will be used on food crops
- Banana Peels, Peach Peels and Orange Rinds (They may contain pesticide residue, and should be kept out of the compost.)
- Black Walnut Leaves
All compostable materials are either carbon or nitrogen-based, to varying degrees. The secret to a healthy compost pile is to maintain a working balance between these two elements.
Carbon - carbon-rich matter gives compost its light, fluffy body. Examples would be; branches, dried leaves, corn stalks, coffee filters, egg shells, and wood ash. Check out the what to compost table above for more.
Nitrogen - nitrogen or protein-rich matter provides raw materials for making enzymes. Examples would be; manures, food scraps, green lawn clippings and green leaves. Check out the what to compost table above for more.
A healthy compost pile should have a lot more carbon than nitrogen. A simple rule of thumb is to use one-third green and two-thirds brown materials. The bulkiness of the brown materials allows oxygen to penetrate and nourish the organisms that reside there. Having too much nitrogen makes for a dense, smelly, slowly decomposing anaerobic mass. Good composting hygiene means covering fresh nitrogen-rich material, since it can release odors if exposed to open air, with carbon-rich material. This often exudes a fresh, wonderful smell. If in doubt, add more carbon!
Starting Your Own Compost
The first thing that should be done is figure out where to start it, and if you need to put it in a compost bin. If you live on a nice patch of land, you can simply make a compost pile in a back corner somewhere. You don’t really need a compost bin to make compost. However, if you live on a smaller patch of land or in the city, you might want to get a compost bin to keep things looking tidy.
Types of compost bins
There are two types of compost bins, stationary and rotating/tumbler. Both types must have their contents turned periodically to provide oxygen and combine the decaying materials.
Stationary bins can be as simple as a well-ventilated cage made from wire fencing, plastic or wooden crates assembled together to make a box. A well-designed bin will retain heat and moisture, which allows quicker results.
Compost tumblers is a compost bin designed to be rotated easily to help speed up the decomposition process by frequent oxygen infusions and heat retention. Most are supported off the ground by a frame, so they can be situated anywhere in the yard.
When using either method, you must find a sunny spot to put it in, so that it has as much heat as possible. Having it in the shade all day will make decomposition much slower, especially when freezing temperatures start to arrive in the fall.
Next you need to start collecting waste from inside and outside of the house, to put on your pile or in your bin. For kitchen wastes, your should keep a container with a lid and a handle somewhere with easy access. Consider using a stainless steel compost pail with air filter; like the picture to the left shows. If you don't mind occasional smells, you can use an old ice-cream pail or something similar. Make sure to chop up any large chunks before you toss them in. When the container is full or once or twice a week, take it out to your composter and toss in the contents. Keep your waste container clean between loads, and you will have a clean-smelling, efficient composting operation set up in your household.
Once you have everything on your pile or in your bin it's recommended to add a compost activator. What that does is contribute either high nitrogen, microorganisms, or both, and provides a quick boost to the decomposition process. Algae, seaweed or lake weed are a great compost activator that you can use. Just be sure to rinse off any salt water before adding. You can also use alfalfa meal, cottonseed meal, blood meal or a compost starter, such as Ringer Compose Plus. Ringer Compost Plus contains a proprietary blend of thermophilic microorganisms as well as a nutrient energy source to quickly break down lawn clippings, brown leaves, wood chips, pine needles and more. Also, you may want to add ashes from a wood-burning stove if you’ve added a lot of acidic materials such as pine needles and oak leaves. Wood ashes are alkaline and can help adjust the pH of your compost pile if it gets too acidic.
All that is left to do is wait. Be sure to keep on adding to the top and in a few months, at the bottom, you will have rich, dark, fertile compost to spread around.
Once you have a good amount of compost, you can spread it lightly on your lawn to make it greener, put it in your vegetable gardens to make it grow bigger, healthier, and stronger vegetables,put it on your flower beds to make your flowers more luscious and pest-resistant, or sprinkle it around your houseplants or container plant. You could even package it nicely and give it to friends and neighbors.
Tips for successful composting
Flying insects attracted to your compost?
Small fruit flies, especially, are naturally attracted to the compost pile. They can be discouraged by simply covering any exposed fruit or vegetable matter, by keeping a small pile of grass clippings handy next to your compost bin, and when you add new kitchen waste to the pile, cover it with one or two inches of clippings. Adding lime or calcium will also discourage flies.
Unpleasant odors from your compost pile?
This can be a concern in urban and suburban areas with small lots and neighbors living close by. Odors can be reduced, or eliminated, by following two practices: first, remember to not put bones or meat scraps into the compost; second, cover new additions to the compost pile with dry grass clippings or similar mulch. Adding lime or calcium will also neutralize odors. If the compost smells like ammonia, add carbon-rich elements such as straw, peat moss or dried leaves.
Is your compost pile steaming?
No problem, it's a good thing. Having a hot, steamy pile means that you have a large community of microscopic critters working away at making your compost.
Composting and weed seeds.
A liability in composting is the unexpected introduction of new weed seeds to your garden. This is caused by slow or incomplete composting which did not generate enough heat to kill any and all weed seeds. Weed seeds in compost are a nuisance because once the compost is transferred to your garden beds, the compost acts to fertilize the weeds and make them even more persistent!
Buying bedding for animals, mulch or carbon-rich material to bulk up your compost pile, can be introducing seeds to your garden, via the compost.
The way to eliminate weed seeds is by following these two steps.
1. Make sure your compost is hot enough.
Reach your hand into the center of the pile, it should be almost too hot for comfort. Specifically, the temperature should be around 130-150°F. It takes about 30 days at 140°F to kill all weed seeds.
2. Mix your pile.
While your compost may be hot in the center of the mass, the outside of the pile is cooler, which in turn gives the seeds a chance to survive. Mixing brings cooler material to the warmer area and also increases aeration which helps attain the higher heat levels. Compost tumblers are very useful for this.
Speeding Up the Compost Process
Compost decomposes fastest at temperatures between 120-160°F, so anything that will increase the heat will help your compost decompose faster. Here are four tips for fast composting:
1. Chop and shred larger items. This makes it easier for the bacteria to break them down. An easy way to shred garden waste is to run your lawn mower over it before you put them in your bin or pile. Take scissors to newsprint or cardboard.
2. Turn, turn, turn. Turning your pile gives frequent oxygen infusions and brings cooler material to the warmer areas, which helps attain the higher heat levels needed for faster decomposition.
3. Collect all your garden or kitchen waste over a couple of days and then add it all at once. The more you add at one time, the more your compost will heat up.
4. Keep your compost pile in the sun. The heat will speed up the process. Having it in the shade all day will make decomposition much slower, especially when freezing temperatures start to arrive in the fall.