Ready, set, grow: Composting

March 23, 2008

“My whole life has been spent waiting for an epiphany, a manifestation of God’s presence, the kind of transcendent, magical experience that lets you see your place in the big picture. And that is what I had with my first compost heap. I love compost and I believe that composting can save not the entire world, but a good portion of it.” –Bette Midler, in a Los Angeles Times interview

Compost is a dark, friable, partially decomposed form of organic matter similar in nature to the organic matter in the soil. It’s an easy and satisfying way to turn kitchen scraps and yard trimmings into ‘black gold’ – a dark, crumbly, nutrient-rich soil conditioner.

Composting also:

  • Saves money by lowering garbage bills and replacing store-bought soil conditioners. It takes the fossil fuel equivalent of 2.5 gallons of gasoline to produce a single 40-pound bag of synthetic fertilizer.
  • Helps garden and house plants by improving the fertility and health of your soil. The organic matter in the compost makes heavy clay soils easier to work by binding the soil particles together. Such aggregation of the soil particles helps improve aeration, root penetration, and water infiltration, and reduces crusting of the soil surface. Additional organic matter also helps sandy soils retain water and nutrients.
  • Saves water by helping the soil hold moisture and reducing water runoff.
  • Benefits the environment by recycling valuable organic resources and extending the life of our landfills. A third of all landfill waste across the United States comes from garden clippings and kitchen waste. Each American is responsible for 1,200 pounds of compostable organic waste annually, and tossing it out not only stuffs landfills unnecessarily but the processes of natural decay can also lead to the production of methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

What to Compost

  • In addition to lawn and garden clippings, any plant-based kitchen scraps (fill a bowl with scraps while you’re preparing food and watch how fast it fills up!) as well as paper products, including cardboard rolls, tissues, paper towels, coffee grounds (Starbucks’s gives them away for FREE! Just go in and ask) and coffee filters.
  • Don’t compost animal or meat byproducts, such as dairy, grease, lard, oils and fish waste, which can create odor problems and attract rodents and other pests. Compost containing meat byproducts can also make dogs and other pets sick if eaten.
  • You can compost pet fur, but don’t compost pet wastes such as feces and litter, which may contain parasites, bacteria, pathogens and viruses that are harmful to humans.
  • While wood ash can be composted in modest amounts, excessive amounts can raise alkalinity and result in nitrogen loss in your soil. Some barbeque charcoal and briquettes contain substances such as borax that can be harmful to plants.
  • Don’t compost any yard trimmings that have been treated with chemical pesticides, since residues could kill beneficial composting organisms.

Five key factors to making an effective efficient compost pile:

  1. Food: The Fifty-Fifty Rule: A perfect mixture of material consists of ½ brown carbon-based material (yard stuff) and ½ green nitrogen-based (kitchen stuff) material by weight.
  2. Air: To Turn or Not to Turn: The organisms that live inside your compost bin need air to survive. Mix or turn the top 2/3 of your pile weekly using a pitchfork, garden hoe or shovel. Proper aeration can make a big difference. You will know if your bin is not getting enough oxygen if the pile smells of ammonia.
  3. Water: Moist, Not Damp: The organisms need water to survive, but not too much or they will drown. The ideal moisture level of your compost pile should be like that of a wrung out sponge.
  4. Surface Area: Small is Best: Cutup or shred organic waste materials before placing them into the compost bin. This increases the surface area and speeds up decomposition. You can also store your kitchen scraps in your freezer to speed up decomposition, as your materials break down at the cell level when frozen.
  5. Bin Volume: Not Too Big: A bin should be between 3’ x 3’ x ’3 and 5’x 5’ x 5’. A bin that is too small cannot retain enough heat. If the bin is too large, it won’t get enough air to the centre of the pile. It is also easier to manage two or three medium bins that one large one. You can build a compost bin yourself out of new or recycled materials, or you can buy one at a home or garden centre.

Compost should be “finished” before application, which means it should be dark in color, smell sweet and earthy and shouldn’t give off heat or steam. Even “finished” compost can change over time and give off heat or odors, so don’t bag or store mature compost. Instead leave unused compost in the pile.

Applying Compost

  • A 3- to 4-inch layer of finished compost can be worked into the tops of garden soil before planting in spring or late fall, or a handful can be transplanted into the hole before planting annuals and perennials.
  • A half-inch of compost can also be applied as a top dressing to lawns in the spring and fall and for shrubs and garden plants several times a year.
  • Mix one part finished compost with two parts soil for a nutritious potting mix for houseplants. When planting seeds, use less compost and more soil to allow roots to take hold firmly.
  • Composting really is fun, easy and your plants will love it! There are a ton of resources online to check out. Also, stop by your local county extension service for free handouts and expert advice. Or, drop us a note. We’re BIG composters here and would love to answer any questions.

    Seee also, Ready, Set, Grow: The importance of well-balanced soil

    One Response to “Ready, set, grow: Composting”

    1. Andrea Says:

      Nice find.
      We all need to find ways to reuse and recycle.
      I’m off to take the quiz.


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