Compost pile

Composting is nature’s way of recycling organic matter back into soil, as part of the cycle of life. In the process, it enriches the soil in your garden, while boosting its ability to retain moisture. Food scraps and yard waste make up 20 to 30 percent of total household trash, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; thus, composting these materials diverts waste from landfills, while creating a beneficial soil amendment.

Here are some tips to make your compost pile a success, even on small urban lots.

Get the Proper Green and Brown Balance

Your compost piles should contain roughly equal parts green and brown material. To thrive, you must feed your pile nitrogen, carbon, water, and air. Brown ingredients, such as branches, twigs, straw, and dead leaves contribute carbon. Green ingredients, including vegetable and fruit waste, tea bags, eggshells, coffee grounds, and grass clippings all provide nitrogen. If you are concerned about attracting animals to your compost pile, do not put meat or dairy in it. If your pile smells or seems overly soggy, add more brown material.

Compost in hand
If your pile smells or seems overly soggy, add more brown material. Image courtesy of wisemandarine.

Select the Compost Pile Location Wisely

You’ve heard the real estate expression — location, location, location.  Well, the same holds true for your compost pile. When selecting a location for a home compost pile, find a dry, shady location that is easy to access from your house— this is because you will be bringing out kitchen scraps regularly. If it is not convenient, you are less likely to use it.

Deter Rodents and Flies

Use a closed bin to keep the compost pile compact, tidy, and rodent-free, especially if space is limited. If you live in a city, put wire mesh on the ground before placing your compost bin on top (to prevent rodents from entering your pile). Then, fill any holes with steel wool to close any gaps. Using a closed bin like a Soil Saver is also helpful. To avoid flies and to minimize odors, bury green materials under brown. For example, keep a straw bale on hand and sprinkle straw on top of your kitchen scraps.

Maintain Your Compost Pile

Don’t just dump your kitchen scraps and leave the rest to nature. Proper care of the compost pile is necessary for the best-finished product, and to avoid odor and fly issues.

Chop food scraps into 1-inch cubes, so they break down more easily, and mix your pile weekly with a pitchfork to aerate it. Remember that air is a necessary ingredient for a healthy compost pile. If your pile gets dry, water it periodically until it is moist (but not soggy!). If you have an excessive amount of flies or a strong odor, this is an indication that it isn’t properly breaking down, or that you need more brown materials.

Add Compost to Garden Soils When Ready

Applying and mixing compost into the soil before it has properly broken down can drain nitrogen as the compost breaks down. When your compost is dark and crumbly, it is ready for garden use. Spread a couple of inches on top of garden beds in the fall, and then mix them into the soil in the spring.

Happy composting!

Feature image courtesy of Joi Ito

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.