Guide to Composting in the Summer

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Summer is a great time for home composting, but composters should remember to water their compost piles to make sure they don't dry out or over-heat. Photo: Wikmedia Commons/Kessner Photography

Though it’s hard to imagine after such an unseasonably cold spring, summer is right around the corner – a great time to start your very own compost pile or tend to your existing pile.

Composting speeds up nature’s decomposition process to turn household food scraps, yard trimmings and even some paper products into a rich soil amendment that you can use in your garden.

What Compost is Right For You?

There are many different home composting options to fit your household waste stream and lifestyle. If you have a yard, you should consider composting food scraps with your yard clippings. For this type of composting, you’ll to equally mix carbon-rich materials, called “browns,” with nitrogen-rich materials, known as “greens.”

Browns are dry, woody materials like fallen leaves, pruned shrubs and even newspaper, while greens include grass clippings, freshly cut weeds and food scraps except for meat and dairy.

No yard? No problem. Worm composting is your best option, where worms will munch through your food leftovers, excluding meat and dairy products. You can place your odor-free worm bin outdoors or indoors, making it an excellent choice for composters who live in apartment buildings or a dense urban area.

Watch Out For These Summer Snafus

Though summertime is an ideal time for composting, home composters should be aware of several issues that may arise with warmer weather.

Fallen leaves make great carbon-rich browns for your compost pile and are easy to find in fall and winter – but not in the summer. Some species of trees drop leaves in the summer due to heat stress, after a few days of extreme heat, according to Alane Weber, a garden educator and professional compost tea producer in the San Francisco Bay Area. Weber also recommends checking in gutters and under hedges for any additional leaves that trees will drop during the summer months.

When you can’t find enough summertime leaves to provide your compost pile with carbon, you can turn to old newspaper. But Weber warns against filling your pile with more than 10 percent newspaper by volume: Too much newspaper can essentially turn into paper mâché and hinder the composting process.

Corrugated cardboard, torn into small pieces, makes a great brown, Weber says, because the corrugated texture traps air and aids the composting process. Wood chips and straw – but not hay – are also good summer alternatives to dried leaves.

Keeping Compost Fresh in High Temps

Watering your compost pile is important year-round, but especially during the warm summer months. Weber advises that your compost pile should be as damp as well wrung-out sponge.

“Reach down into the pile, pull out a handful of compost and squeeze as hard as you can. Only a tiny bit of water should out,” she says.

While the microbes and worms in your compost bin thrive in warm temperatures, extreme heat can actually kill microbes. If you’re using a black plastic compost bin that sits in direct sunlight, the bin acts as a solar oven, Weber warns. She recommends taking a large piece of cardboard, like a refrigerator box, and covering the compost bin to prevent the pile from over-heating and drying out.

You needn’t worry about worms over-heating, however. Worms don’t like temperatures over 95 degrees Fahrenheit, and if the pile heats up, they will wiggle to cooler areas of the pile or near the ground.

Weber’s last bit of summertime composting advice is to use your compost on your garden before winter comes. She says it is not necessary to wait until every last scrap is broken down into tiny pieces. Compost that is still in the process of decomposing provides extra nutrients for the helpful microbes in your garden’s soil.

“It’s like sending your kids off to school with their lunches,” she says.

If you need to remove the larger, not-quite-yet-decomposed pieces from your compost for special plantings, you can use a screen to filter the pieces out, she advises.

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