Welcome to Composting 101! This is a comprehensive lesson into the basics of turning organic materials that we usually throw away into nutrient-rich food for your garden and lawn.
Did you know that 22 percent of the waste that is sent to our landfills is household food waste? This is more than any other single type of waste that is sent to the landfill from our everyday trash. It’s also the only type of trash with nutritional and ecological value!
If you are a homeowner or renter with a yard that you are responsible for, composting is a great way to keep your lawn and gardens healthy, without using synthetic chemicals like fertilizers and pesticides that pollute the soil and contaminate the food you grow.
Composting is a rewarding and earth-friendly way to care for your yard and gardens, while also saving you money by eliminating the need for costly (both for your wallet and the planet) man-made, commercially produced fertilizers.
Some communities have commercially available composting programs. However, if your community doesn’t, you can easily create your own compost at home.
What exactly is composting?
Composting is a way of converting household and yard organic wastes into a healthy and environmentally friendly, soil amendment for your lawn and gardens. Your food and yard waste is full of nutrients that can be released back into the environment, creating a balanced source of nutrition for new garden plants, and your lawn.
Composting is a process that farmers and gardeners have been using for hundreds of years to improve the health of soil, with readily available materials, like kitchen scraps, lawn clippings and dead leaves.
Composting results in a couple of different finished products: compost, manure and mulch.
In this article we will focus on the process of creating traditional compost, but it is important to mention the other two types, because they are beneficial to your yard as well.
Compost – as we have mentioned, traditional compost uses yard and kitchen waste to create a healthy soil amendment. This soil amendment will add important microbes to your soil that will help your plants best utilize the nutrients that are available for them to “eat.”
Manure – is an animal by-product. It is a good way to introduce microbes as well as nitrogen and phosphorous to your soil. The downfall here is that good manure is almost always stinky, and might not be too popular with your neighbors. Many farms are eager to sell their manure, and some farms will sell a product that is a combination of manure and compost, so you get the benefits of both products. However, it is also stinky, so keep that in mind.
Mulch – Mulch is generally a larger, more slowly decaying material that is used as a ground cover or garden cover. Mulch comes in forms like bark or shredded wood, dried leaves and fine rock. Mulch breaks down much slower than compost or manure. Because it is larger in size, mulch is good for providing soil cover that will limit weed growth and provide a layer of protection to perennial plants, trees and shrubs during the colder winter months.
This guide will focus on the traditional compost which can be made at home. Mulch and manure are generally most accessible from local farms or at your local garden supply store.
Science behind composting
Composting is all about microbiology, and microbe ecosystems. Don’t worry though! You don’t need to have a background in either of these sciences to make great compost. However, it does help to understand the basics so that you can get the most from your microorganisms, and so that your compost is most beneficial for your lawn and gardens.
Compost is the end product of the decomposition of plant and animal waste by microorganisms, fungi, and soil fauna (tiny animals).
All of these organisms are found naturally in soils and do the work of breaking down organic materials like leaves, grass, animal waste and other natural materials.
When we improve the living environment for these organisms in our compost piles, we are accelerating the process of decomposition to create a usable product that we can add to soils around our home, to make our plants healthier and happier.
There are four basic elements that will make microbes happiest, and produce rich nutrient-dense compost:
Microorganisms love materials that are carbon-rich. This is what gives your microbes plenty of energy to break down all our waste into a usable product. Carbon rich materials are easy to identify because they are generally the stuff we consider dry, tough and fibrous. Good examples of carbon-rich, compostable materials include dried leaves, straw, sawdust, shredded paper and cornstalks.
Nitrogen-rich materials are necessary for providing protein that is essential for microbes to grow and reproduce.
High moisture, green materials like freshly-pulled weeds, fresh grass clippings and over ripe fruits and veggies are perfect sources of nitrogen. You can also use many of your kitchen scraps (lean, low fat meats included) to increase nitrogen in your compost.
If you don’t have a lot of these materials, you can also buy amendments like kelp, blood or bone meal, or even seaweed, and manure.
We all know that water is the essential building block of life. Microbes need plenty of water, just like us, to keep healthy.
However, there is a balance that needs to be maintained. Too much water will drown your microorganisms, too little will dehydrate them.
In either case, your microbes will stop decomposing and instead focus on survival, which means that your compost production will slow or cease all together.
For best results, your compost should feel like a well-wrung sponge.
Finally, your microbes need to breathe to do their work. Oxygen is essential for the proper function of microbe cells. The harder your microbes are working, the more oxygen they will consume.
Oxygen is added by simply keeping your compost pile loose. When your pile is new, your microbes will have access to plenty of oxygen. However, as your compost ages, it will begin to compact, and spaces for oxygen will become limited.
You don’t need to add anything to your compost pile at this point, just make sure your pile is well turned. This can be accomplished using a compost fork, shovel or compost aerator.
A compost tumbler can make this task easier much easier.
Why Is Composting Important?
Composting provides a variety of benefits for our planet as well as your yard. On the grandest scale, it is a practical way to help offset our carbon footprint. On a much smaller scale, it beautifies and nourishes our lawns and gardens.
From the standpoint of your home and yard, compost provides a natural way to improve soil health. As your plants grow, they consume nutrients like nitrogen, carbon, oxygen and phosphorus from the soil. All of these are essential for your lawn, vegetables, and flowers to be healthy.
However, these nutrients don’t end up there on their own, and if they are depleted from the soil, your plants won’t grow as well, or produce as much.
While you can buy synthetic fertilizer to put on your gardens, and it can be a quick and simple answer to feeding your lawn or gardens, synthetic fertilizers pollute soil and seep into our waterways.
Compost is the best alternative to synthetic fertilizers. It provides all of the nutrients that your lawn, gardens and flowers might need – and unlike chemically-produced fertilizers, compost is beneficial to the environment.
Compost not only amends your soil with great, easily accessible nutrients for your plants, but it also replenishes the soil with essential microbes that will break down other plant material, like tree leaves or grass thatch, releasing more nutrients into the soil.
Another tremendous benefit to composting is that you can reduce the amount of kitchen and yard waste that goes into your weekly trash. Food scraps and yard waste no longer have to burden your garbage cans, and you no longer have to feel badly about throwing out food that got lost in the fridge, or that just didn’t get eaten.
Finally, remember that percentage we threw out at the beginning of this article, about the amount of organic matter like food scraps and lawn waste that ends up in the landfill?
By composting, you help reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfills. With our population growing, and fewer places to build more landfills, it is crucial that each of us do our part to reduce waste. Composting your waste is a tiny (but impactful) step that you can take to preserve our environment, and reduce the need for more landfills.
And if your neighbors see how amazing your yard looks, just from composting, perhaps you can inspire more people to try composting as an alternative to throwing kitchen and yard waste into the trash can.
How Long Does Composting Take?
Here’s the thing about composting… if you’re into instant gratification, it probably isn’t the thing for you. Composting takes time, and we’re not talking a couple of weeks. Good composts will take a few months, at least, to develop.
Keep in mind that you will be using millions of tiny organisms and animals to reduce your kitchen scraps and yard waste to a material that can be easily spread on your lawn or added to the soil in your gardens. While microbes are highly efficient, making compost doesn’t happen overnight.
Planning is the key to producing compost. If you want to start using compost in your yard, it is a good idea to start many months before you are ready to amend your garden soils.
This may mean that you build or buy your bin and start your pile in the early summer before you start using your own compost in the fall. This will give you ample time to build a pile of compost that you can use on your lawn, garden, raised beds, and flower pots.
There are 3 things that you should watch for, that will slow down your compost production.
First is temperature. Your microbes like to be warm, so make sure that your bin isn’t too big for the waste you produce. Compost that is compact will stay warmer, and produce more efficient microbes.
The second factor is moisture. A compost pile that is too wet or too dry won’t decompose. Make sure that you cover your pile and then add water when necessary.
Third is oxygen. While your pile likes to be compact, it won’t like being too compact. Overly compressed compost won’t have enough room for air, and if your microbes can’t breathe they won’t work for you. Turn your compost regularly (every two weeks is recommended) to keep plenty of air in your compost, and your microbes breathing easy.
How To Speed Up Composting?
If your compost seems to be moving along slowly, there are things that you can do to speed up the process. Keep in mind, speeding up your compost is relative. Taking these steps won’t result in amazing compost in just a few weeks, but if your microbes have slowed, this will give them a boost, and ensure that your compost will be ready for fall or springtime planting, and give your lawn a jump into summer.
This is a super easy way to speed things up. We mentioned above that your microbes need to breathe easy in order to be productive. If your compost has compacted down too much, it might be suffocating your microbes and in turn, slowing them down.
If you’ve put your compost in a bin, turn it using a small pitchfork, called a compost fork. These are fairly inexpensive and can be found at most home improvement or garden stores.
You can also find compost aerators that make turning your compost easier if you’re working in a smaller bin. If you want to go a bit fancier, and you haven’t built a bin yet, you might want to invest in a compost tumbler.
These other handy tools allow you to pile your compost in a covered (and sometimes insulated) bin that can be crank-turned every couple of weeks, making turning your compost a breeze.
Compost will decompose quicker if the pieces that you throw in your bin are small.
This does mean a little extra work on your end, but if you are ready to speed up the process, it’s totally worth the time investment.
For kitchen scraps, make sure you are cutting things up into small pieces. They don’t have to be super tiny, but the smaller the better. If you are adding over-ripe fruit or vegetables, make sure you reduce their size as much as possible.
When it comes to yard waste, make sure that you aren’t adding a bunch of larger sized leaves. To break down leaves quicker grind up and bag them with your lawn mower before adding them to your compost bin.
Your microbes will find this easier to manage, and it will also keep leaves from making tight layers in your compost, that limit air supply to your microbes.
TIP: For large properties, using a motorized compost grinder will make quick work of chopping material.
Compost accelerators are pre-packaged microorganisms that you can add to your compost to speed up decomposition.
These commercially available accelerators are formulated for different weather regions, so that they work well in the climate in which you are living.
Make sure that you research these well, before you buy. Also, make sure that before you spend money on accelerators, you have done the simple basics like turning and reducing the size of the material you add to your composter.
It’s also important to make sure that temperature and moisture content is correct for the accelerator, otherwise you’ll just be wasting money, and your compost won’t move any quicker.
Worms are a fun way to speed up composting, especially if you’ve got kids helping you! These hungry organisms are highly efficient at reducing waste to make usable compost. They are also really good at breaking down pet waste. Pet waste can be added to your compost bin, but not all microbes are as good at breaking down pet waste as worms are. Worms will then transfer to your gardens, and continue to benefit soil long after your compost has been added. If you are shopping for worms, the best ones for composting are Red Wigglers.
Composting is the best way to reduce kitchen and yard waste, and at the same time, preserve the environment.
When done right, and with some patience, composting results in a product that will make your lawn more lush and green, enable your flowers to thrive, and your veggies to produce more deliciousness.
All of this without the need for chemicals that are harmful for the environment, your pets, and your family. When you compost, you can feel good that you are doing something great, while at the same time keeping some extra cash in your wallet.