Well-fed soil will result in healthy, thriving nutrient-dense plants growing in your garden. You can enhance and maintain the nutrient quality of the soil in your garden by feeding it organic matter which you can get from composting.
What is Composting?
Composting is the process of recycling organic matter into high-grade fertilizer that feeds soil and plants. Anything that grows will decompose eventually. Composting helps speed up the process by providing ideal conditions for beneficial bacteria, fungi, and organisms (worms, nematodes and others) to do their work. If you understand that soil is living matter, with as many as 50 billion microscopic plants and organisms, you can easily see the important role that composting plays in the lifecycle of a healthy garden.
Composting is good for the soil, good for your plants, and is beneficial to the earth. When you compost food scraps and other biodegradable matter, you are reducing waste that would otherwise go into a landfill or get dumped in ocean water.
What can be composted at home?
A wide variety of organic matter and biodegradable materials can be composted. For home composting, you can include:
- Egg shells
- Nut shells
- Food scraps
- Grass clippings
- Wood chips
- Tea bags
- Coffee grounds and paper filters
- Ash from natural wood used in a fireplace
What material should not be used in a home compost?
The following items are not suitable for a home compost:
- Animal droppings
- Cat litter
- Meat, fish bones and scraps (will attract wild animals)
- Yard debris treated with chemicals or that contains weeds
- Grease, lard, oil, and solid fats
- Plant matter infected with pests or disease
- Charcoal or ash
- Any plant or tree matter that is poisonous
How to Compost at Home
Choose your composting method based on:
- Available space to setup a compost
- Local geography (temperature, aeration, humidity)
- Amount of time you can commit
- Types of organic waste you can collect (food waste, yard waste)
A fairly simple approach to composting is explained by the National Resources Defense Council, summarized below (for details, please go to the NRDC website):
- Set Up a Collection Area. A collection bin can be set up outdoors, in a garage, or even under the kitchen sink. The composting container has to be in a dry and shady area with stable conditions (temperature, moisture) in order for matter to decompose.
- Be a Mix Master. The contents of your bin need to be biologically diverse. This means a mix of carbon-heavy “browns” and nitrogen-centric “greens.” “Browns” include shredded paper, dead leaves, and food-soiled paper napkins. “Greens” include plant matter, tea leaves, fruit skins, vegetable and yard clippings
- Churn the Rot. You want rot to set in. To encourage this, use a shovel (for outdoors) or a garden fork (for a bin) to churn the contents of your bin. In warmer weather, do this weekly. In the colder weather, once per month is sufficient. Sprinkle organic dirt in with each churn. If it is dry, dampen it with a little water (don’t make it soggy), churn, and seal.
- The Dirty Payoff. When the contents of your bin looks like rich, dark soil, you’ve got feed for your garden! It should have an earthy scent.
- Feed Your Garden. When you have a dark, moist, and woodsy compost, sprinkle it around existing plants and mix it into organic dirt upon planting. There are many approaches to using compost.
Compost Problems to Avoid
An unmaintained compost pile can be smelly–and harmful for your health and the Earth’s health. There are seven common compost problems. Luckily, they all have easy solutions.
- The pile is slow to break down and matted: this happens when you have too many dense materials and not enough air in your compost pile. The solution is turn it over regularly and fluff it up every couple weeks to bring air to the pile.
- Your compost has a funky smell: there could be a couple reasons your pile is smelly: too much water, lack of air, or an imbalanced carbon/nitrogen ratio. Add some sawdust or chimney ash that will compost fast to help get rid of the smell.
- Leaves are not breaking down: if it’s been a year and the dead leaves in your pile aren’t breaking down, you might have a bad ratio of carbon to nitrogen. To fix it, add as many green leaves as brown leaves and soak the entire compost pile.
- Your compost is on fire: the opposite of too many brown leaves is too much greenery–and this can cause the pile to catch on fire. While extremely rare, if this does happen, add water and brown leaves to calm the fire down.
- A lack of worms and bugs in your pile: worms and bugs are necessary to break down your compost. If there’s not enough in your pile, adjust the carbon to nitrogen ratio so it’s more hospitable to insect friends.
- Too many sticks: if sticks are not breaking down, they may be too big for insects and worms to munch on. Remove and break down any bulky sticks.
- You’re not putting in the time: adding another task–compost management–to your to-do list can feel overwhelming but it doesn’t have to take long. Anytime you put something new in your compost pile, poke around with a stick to keep it aerated.
The average person throws away nine times their own body weight in waste every year. As much as 30% of that waste is in the form of food scraps and yard waste that could otherwise be used in composting–and as you probably learned from this article, composting is easier than commonly believed. Feel free to refer back to this guide when starting and maintaining your compost pile.