To Compost, or not to Compost?
Composting is one of the most basic elements of green living, but many do not know what it is or why they should do it, let alone how to do it. Composting can sound intimidating to the novice, but it is really simple and happens all the time in nature without any input from human hands at all. It was going on long before we were here and will continue long after we are gone. Look at the grass below you, where did all of that soil come from? The answer is compost.
Our topsoil is the result of the decay of organic matter and builds up at the rate of ¼ inch per year in most non-wooded average areas. The type of dirt that we are after is light, airy, nutrient rich loam or humus. They only way to get this is through the decay of organic matter.
Why should we want such a thing? If you are a gardener, you already know the answer to this question, but if you are not a gardener, then the answer might not be so obvious. High nutrient, composted soil has many uses for the non-gardener. If you grow houseplants, it is the best potting soil. It is the basis for any potting soil mix. It can be amended to meet many needs.
If you are making new flower beds, there is no need to purchase organic soil or compost, if you already have a supply of your own. If the beds are already established, a fresh dressing of compost is an excellent way to add nutrients back into the soil. You can just put a little around the plants whenever you happen to have a little extra compost to spare. If you don’t do flowers or other gardening, spreading it out over the lawn can help to keep it fresh and vital. It is probably true that composting is not worth the effort for those who live in places where there is no lawn or green space. However, everyone else can find a use for it.
Composting helps to reduce landfill waste. Although, ultimately organic matter will eventually break down into soil, at the landfill, it does not have optimum conditions to do so. It will break down much more efficiently in a backyard composting set up. The best reason for composting is that it is an excellent way for children to see the reduce, reuse, recycle idea in action. They can see how what they throw out breaks down, provides food for living creatures (worms) and get reused to help a new plant grow. This is an excellent classroom activity that can take place on a small scale over the course of a school year.
The first thing that you will need is a container. The container should be large enough to pile up a good quantity of decaying material. You will want extra room for turning. It must have air circulation and drainage. There are many commercial composting systems available. They range from simple plastic bins with holes in the top and drainage holes in the bottom to ones that can be turned by an attached crank system. They come in a wide range of price ranges and sizes. Search the internet and you are sure to come up with something that suits your needs. Mine is a fenced area that is about 4 feet by 4 feet per side. Don’t’ go much bigger than 4 feet X 4 feet X 4 feet high or there is the potential that enough heat can build up to catch fire. This in one place where it pays to think small.
Once you find a proper composter, it is time to decide what to put in it. Passive composting is a slow natural process, as it occurs in nature. No one takes an active role is speeding up the process in this case. Active composting means taking actions that can speed up the process to about 2-6 weeks. Active composting requires aeration by turning the pile about once a week, moisture, and the proper carbon to nitrogen ratio. Hey wait, I thought you said it was simple?
The carbon to nitrogen ratio is important for the growth of decomposers. Carbon is like food for worms and nitrogen helps them to digest carbon and turn it into energy. The proper ratio is typically 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. This sounds tricky, but it will happen naturally if you thrown in a variety of plant materials. For instance, carbon is found in leaves, straw, hay, shrub prunings, shredded paper, cardboard, newspaper, sawdust, woodchips, and dryer lint. Nitrogen comes from eggshells, fruit and vegetable scraps, grass clippings, weeds, flowers, coffee grounds, and tea leaves. Don’t worry about the carbon to nitrogen ratio and getting it exact, as long as you vary your composting material, the little microorganisms and decomposters will be quite happy.
One hint about the carbon/nitrogen ratio is that if the pile begins to smell badly, you probably need to add more nitrogen materials. The most common odor source is the production of ammonia gas due to not enough nitrogen. Composters are happiest when they can come in contact with air. Breaking up the material and reducing it by chopping, shredding or mowing will help to make the material easier for the decomposers to digest. Also, the addition of fruit and vegetables should be done by burying it in the pile or it could attract fruit flies.
Aeration is an important part of the process. The compost should be turned once a week. If you forget to turn it, don’t be surprised if there is an odor. This means that the microbes could not get to that part of the pile due to lack of oxygen. Turning it helps to cur down on odor. If you happen to go on vacation for a month, don’t worry, decomposition will continue, just turn it when you get back. This is a very for giving process and will happen whether you tend to it or not.
Moisture is another important part of the process. Microorganisms can only use organic molecules if they are dissolved in water, otherwise they will go dormant. When decomposition slows, smells will begin to appear. It should be kept at about the moisture of a damp sponge in order to be at its best. As the microorganisms and decomposters begin to work, the pile will build up heat. It should be around 90-140 degrees F for optimum growth. Decomposition still occurs outside this range. Your compost pile will keep working through the winter, but it will be much slower. I compost around the outsides of raised beds so that the decomposition will produce heat through the winter. I have used it around cold frames and greenhouses to raise the temperature in the winter. Fresh lettuce and carrots in January in Ohio, Yum!
Redworms are one of the most efficient composters and are one of the most forgiving too. If you do not have a ready supply, you can purchase them on the Internet and have them shipped. The number of worms that you need depends on how much food waste you generate in a week. The worms will reproduce if sufficient food is available or die back to a sustainable number if enough food is not available. Worm castings are an excellent nutrient source for plants.
I have read various estimates on the amount of food waste that ends up in our landfills and numbers range anywhere from 20-40%. Composting food scraps is something that everyone can do. If we reduced the amount of waste in our landfills by that much, it would save more room for things that we cannot compost. Composting is a rewarding experience. It is satisfying to reach your hands into that ‘black gold” and know that your plants will love it and so will the environment. Happy Composting!