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What is Compost?

BTGBlog_Composte

Compost is simply decomposed organic material such as leaves, grass clippings and kitchen scraps. While composting may seem mysterious or complicated, it’s really just a way to speed up the process of decomposition that happens naturally whether we are involved or not. Animals such as birds, organisms like centipedes and microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi each feast on the organic materials in the presence of oxygen and help break them down into nutrient-rich compost, also called humus. Compost is dark and crumbly with an earthy aroma and can improve the quality and health of your soil and subsequently the plants in your yard and garden.

What are the benefits of composting?

  • Improves soil health. The crumbly texture of compost can improve airflow moisture retention in soils with high clay content and the available nutrients improve soil health and subsequently plant health.
  • Good for the environment. Compost offers a natural alternative to chemical fertilizers.
  • Recycles kitchen and yard waste. Composting can divert as much as 30% of household waste away from the garbage can.
  • Reduces landfill waste. Most landfills in North America are quickly filling up; many have already closed down. One-third of landfill waste is made up of compostable materials.
  • Cost-effective. Materials previously seen as waste people often pay to dispose of become ingredients for valuable compost with little or no financial investment for the simplest methods.

What basics do I need to know to compost effectively?

Decomposers such as bacteria, fungi, worms and other organisms are not much different than people in terms of their basic needs, so to encourage an optimal rate of decomposition, be sure to provide your microbes with all of the basics:

  • Food: Carbon and Nitrogen (Browns & Greens)
  • Water: Moist, not soggy
  • Air: Oxygen
  • Volume: 3′ long x 3′ high x 3′ deep or 3-5 foot diameter by 3 feet high cylinder
  • Particle Size: Less than 2-3 inches

How do I get started?

There are many approaches to composting, each suited to the needs and lifestyles of those using them. Below are a few common approaches.

Backyard Composting—Slow, Minimal Effort Approach

  1. Select a dry, shady spot near a water source for your compost pile or bin.
  2. Add your brown and green materials as you collect them, making sure larger pieces are chopped or shredded.
  3. Moisten dry materials as they are added.
  4. Once your compost pile is established, mix grass clippings and green waste into the pile and bury fruit and vegetable waste under 10 inches of compost material.
  5. When the material at the bottom is dark and rich in color, your compost is ready to use (this is usually occurs in several months to two years).

Backyard Composting—Faster, Moderate Effort Approach

  1. Select a dry, shady spot near a water source for your compost pile or bin.
  2. Before you add your brown and green materials, make sure larger pieces are chopped or shredded.
  3. Cover your composting area with a 6-inch layer of brown materials.
  4. Add a 3-inch layer of green materials and a little soil or finished compost.
  5. Lightly mix the two layers above.
  6. Top with a 3-inch layer of brown materials, adding water until moist.
  7. Turn your compost pile every week or two with a pitchfork to distribute air and moisture. Move the dry materials from the edges into the middle of the pile. Continue this practice until the pile does not re-heat much after turning.
  8. Your compost will be ready in one to four months, but let the pile sit for two weeks before using.

Indoor Composting

If you do not have space for an outdoor compost pile, you can compost materials indoors using a special type of bin, which you can buy or make yourself. Remember to tend your pile and keep track of what you throw in. A properly managed compost bin will not attract pests or rodents and will not smell bad. Your compost should be ready in 2 to 5 weeks.

Vermicomposting (Worm composting)

Composting with red worms (not night crawlers) is another method ideal for indoor composting in apartments, offices and classrooms. Worms eat almost anything suitable for an outdoor compost pile and leave behind nutrient-rich worm castings. The process requires worms, worm bedding (e.g., shredded newspaper, cardboard), and a bin to contain the worms and organic matter. Maintenance procedures include preparing bedding, burying garbage, and separating worms from their castings. A pound of worms can eat about half a pound of organic material each day! Within three or four months, worms will produce enough worm castings for harvesting.

What to Compost at Home

The short answer is any plant material can be composted. All plant materials contain nitrogen and carbon. Materials high in nitrogen are called “greens,” e.g. grass clippings, manure, and kitchen scraps. Materials high in carbon are called “browns,” e.g. leaves, sawdust, shredded paper and wood chips. Before adding materials to the compost bin, chip or shred items so they are no more than 2-3 inches long.  (See material list below.)

  • Animal ( cow or horse) manure
  • Cardboard rolls
  • Clean paper
  • Coffee grounds and filters
  • Cotton rags
  • Dryer and vacuum cleaner lint
  • Eggshells
  • Fireplace ashes
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Grass clippings
  • Hair and fur
  • Hay and straw
  • Houseplants
  • Leaves
  • Nut shells
  • Sawdust
  • Shredded newspaper
  • Tea bags
  • Wood chips
  • Wool rags
  • Yard trimmings

What Not to Compost at Home

There are animal products that attract pests, can pass on diseases, or don’t break down quickly and are not recommended for home composting—dairy products, fats/oils, pet waste, meat, bones, etc. In addition, disease-ridden plants are not recommended because the compost may not reach temperatures high enough to kill the responsible organisms.
Sources: A Green Guide to Yard Waste. Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission. 2001, The US Environmental Protection Agency, The University of Missouri Extension — Making and Using Compost , Oz Gardener’s gardening page