Composting For Newbies

August 31, 2017

Every day millions of Americans toss valuable natural resources into the trash or stuff them down the garbage disposal. Then, they trek to the store to buy fertilizer for their vegetables, flowers, or lawn. How silly when composting is an easy way to create free soil builder while keeping material out of the landfill.

Using natural decomposition, composting transforms kitchen and yard waste into rich soil building material. Coffee grounds, corn shucks, potato peels, leaves, plant trimmings, egg shells, and a myriad of other organic items many people casually throw away can be converted to what gardeners consider black gold for its amazing ability to sustain healthy plants. Even coffee filters and paper towels will compost.

Composting requires some knowledge and a little elbow grease but not much money.  All that is needed is a compost bin, a bucket or two to carry ingredients to the bin, and a spading fork to occasionally stir the decomposing mix.

Many types of compost bins can be bought online or at garden and home supply stores. Most are easy to use, but some are on the small size. Bins are easily made from lumber, and some enterprising people craft them from free pallets or scrap wood. Whether purchased or homemade, the most effective bins hold at least a cubic yard. Size is important because a bin needs to hold heat generated by bacteria as they convert organic items into compost. The bin should have a side that opens to make it easy to shovel out finished compost. It helps to cover an open bin with screening to exclude the crows that love to dine on freshly deposited kitchen scraps.

Most any organic material can be converted to compost but the ones that decay quickly tend to be high in nitrogen and are chopped up into small pieces. Coffee grounds are a perfect example, but the following common kitchen scraps also compost well:

  • Potato, carrot, cucumber, and many other vegetable peels
  • Spoiled fruit or vegetables
  • Tea leaves. Even tea bags will decay
  • Most any other food that’s normally tossed out, except meat and fish scraps. They attract raccoons and other scavengers that make a mess.

Outdoor compostable items include weeds, garden trimmings and lawn clippings (but it’s usually best to leave these on the lawn). Autumn leaves can be used sparingly as long as they are in a bin with materials that have a high nitrogen content.

An easy way to gather compostable material is to dedicate a clean stainless-steel bucket or pan. It stays near the kitchen sink so adding food scraps is convenient. Empty it daily into the outdoor compost bin and then wash it out to avoid odors. Although only a few ounces of material may move from the kitchen to the bin every day, over a year that can add up to 100 or more pounds of compost.

Many websites and most gardening books contain detailed information on how to make compost but basically there are two ways to do it.

Most experts advise making compost using a fairly intense method. It works perfectly and makes superior compost quickly but requires having much material available and takes work to occasionally stir the mixture so it remains oxygenated. Essentially this method involves creating alternating layers of nitrogen rich material, such as horse or chicken manure, with coarse carbon rich plant material like straw, sawdust, weeds, or leaves. When the bin is filled and moistened bacteria soon multiply by the hundreds of millions and begin devouring the mix.   Their activity generates heat that kills many weed seeds and breaks down coarse plant stems.   As the microorganisms consume oxygen the material cools down. Stirring and fluffing up the mixture with a pitch fork allows oxygen to enter and soon it reheats. After a couple of stirrings over six to eight weeks beautiful rich compost results. This method works best for people who have access to manure and is a perfect complement to families with a flock of backyard chickens. Cleaning out the chicken coop’s litter in spring and fall creates perfect compost material.

Many people don’t have access to manure or large quantities of material to compost but generate kitchen waste daily. The easy composting method takes longer than the intense way but also creates good compost. It’s very simple. Every day bring the bucket scraps from the kitchen and dump them in the bin. It helps to occasionally cover them with a thin layer of lawn clippings, leaves, or garden weeds.  It may take months to fill the bin but all the while bacteria will be slowly converting the waste into compost. Normally the bin won’t heat up and decomposition takes six months to a year, but eventually great compost can be harvested from the bottom of the heap beneath more newly added material.

No matter how compost is made it is a perfect material to dig into garden soil, use as mulch around plants, or even too mulch newly planted trees.  A thin layer can be spread on lawns to stimulate grass growth.

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