When you think of “compost,” what comes to mind? Gardening? Food scraps? Waste? Well, what comes to mind for me is LIFE. We compost what was once alive and the outcome is living, although microscopic, it’s teeming with life! Spring is upon us and as they say, “The Earth laughs in flowers.” I hope you consider compost as a natural way to enhance life in the soil and join nature’s laughter.
What Does It Take To Make “Good” Compost?
Just like humans, compost piles need a balanced diet of both carbohydrates and proteins. Materials like soiled paper or fiber containers, branches, and leaves act as the source of carbohydrates, known as the browns. The food scraps, as well as grass clippings, are a source of protein, known as the greens.
To make rich, earthy smelling compost, a pile requires 2:1 of browns to greens. The greens are typically wetter and contain the nitrogen and the browns are typically drier and provide the carbon.
How To Start a Composting at Home
To start a compost pile at home, you must begin with a good balance of organic materials. Consider ripping up or grinding the materials to jump-start the decomposition process.
Be sure to introduce water to the pile. The ideal saturation level is between 50% and 60% moisture; it should feel as moist as a wrung-out sponge. It’s also very important to mix the piles or manually turn them (depending on your compost system) every couple of weeks. Each time you turn the pile, check for dry conditions and add water when necessary. Mixing introduces oxygen to the pile, which allows for the aerobic conditions in which the necessary microbes thrive.
Know Your Composting Choices
There are several types of composting bins, and Earth911 has explained each in detail. Your choices include:
- Tumblers: rotating barrel-like containers that you can crank to turn/aerate. Best suited for small to medium yards, these are easier to manage thanks to the built-in turner to aerate the pile.
- Classic pile: you can build these on the ground and fence in. This option is much simpler but requires more labor; you need a pitchfork or other tool to manually mix/turn. Best for larger yards, piles should be built on a flat surface to reduce runoff.
- Stationary bins: typically made of plastic (can be found in metal) and have a lid. This method generally takes the longest to compost. Suitable for small spaces, place your bin on a flat surface to reduce runoff.
It takes a fair amount of time for materials to decompose, up to 6 months or more. The timing is highly variable based on the types of organic materials you compost and how often you water and turn your piles.
Tips for Dealing With Common Composting Issues
- Funny smells? This usually means the pile is lacking oxygen. Add some browns and turn the pile; introducing more air to your pile stimulates microbial activity.
- Pile too dry? If your compost is not heating up or remains cool, spray some water, add greens, and mix.
- Fruit flies? Stir and add leaves or grass to the top of the pile. The fruit flies are targeting your kitchen scraps; dry leaves or grass deter them naturally.
- Pests, like rats or other scavengers? Remove any meats or fatty food scraps from your bin. This removes the temptation to pests and reduces the potential of harboring pathogens. You can also cover the pile with a heavy layer of soil, leaves, or sawdust, or use an animal-proof compost bin.
Find more composting tips from the EPA and Earth911.
The Reward for Your Efforts
The effort will all be worth it when you get to use the finished, nutrient-rich compost! When the compost starts to look dark, resembling soil with no distinguishable remnants, you can pick it up and put it to your nose: if it smells like the forest floor, it’s done!
Compost is nature’s fertilizer. It acts as a wonderful substitute for chemical fertilizers and it brings life back to the soil. The organic matter in the compost revitalizes soil so that plants can flourish. Compost can aid in moisture retention and slowly releases nutrients to the plant’s roots. Compost is a natural pesticide and helps to deter unwanted critters. Your garden will thrive with the addition of compost to the soil.
Nourish the soil with your compost so you can enjoy the summer harvests … and don’t forget to compost the leftovers!
About the Author
Erin Levine is the Resource Recovery Manager at World Centric. Erin has been involved with resource recovery for 18 years and in the last decade has focused specifically on the sales and marketing of finished compost. She has supported commercial compost facilities throughout the West Coast and has worked closely with the end users of compost, particularly the agricultural industry. Erin is a Certified Composting Professional through the US Composting Council and a Certified Compost Programs Manager through the Solid Waste Authority of North America.