How Anyone Can Learn How to Compost and Why Everyone Should
Good for you! You’ve finally found time to learn how to compost and reduce your food waste. You’re excited that your vegetable peels and never-ending piles of coffee grounds will be put to good use instead of burning in a landfill. You’re going to help save the planet!
And then you google, “Composting for Beginners.” Garden experts talk about ‘soil structure’ and ‘water retention.’ (What the heck is that?) They say it can take up to a year to make compost. (A year!? I could barely find the time to google ‘how to compost’!) They talk about nailing pallets and minimum square footage. (Square feet!? I don’t even have a back yard!) They extol the pounds of compost you’ll end up with. (What on Earth am I going to do with so much compost anyway? I have ONE tomato plant in the summer and that’s it.) They talk about red wriggler worms. (Worms!? Oh heck no. I’m out.) And just like that you’re overwhelmed and decide to quit composting before you even begin.
Don’t! I’m here to tell you composting can be part of your life even if you don’t have a lot of time, space or a particular need for composting material. So go ahead and use compost as an excuse to make that second pot of coffee. The grounds won’t go to waste.
OK, let’s learn how to compost.
What is composting, exactly?
In short, compost is decayed organic materials. Here, ‘organic’ means any material that comes from a living being, be it plant, animal or fungus. When you mix the right combination of organic materials together, microorganisms naturally break down the material over tim
e. Afterwards you’re left with what gardeners call Black Gold. ‘Black’ because it’s very dark in color, and ‘gold’ becau
se compost is nutrient-rich and extremely beneficial for plants. It’s basically a fertilizer for your soil that helps to improve its composition by increasing bacterial activity. Think about the food you eat with live probiotics. The bacteria present in kombucha, greek yogurt and other bacteria-rich foods are good for your gut. The same is true with certain bacterial activity in soil.
Why is composting good for the planet?
Not only does compost add nutrients to soil, making your plants grow faster and healthier, but it also helps with nutrient, air, and water retention. This means that the soil is able to hold on to these substances for longer periods of time, keeping them available until your plant is ready to use them. When this happens plants require less water and fertilizers than they would without compost material.
Because compost is often made from leftover food scraps and dead trimmings from gardens, composting is also a way of recycling unused organic goods that would otherwise end up in landfills. Think about an apple falling from a tree. When the apple is exposed to microorganisms on the ground along with the air above, the apple breaks down naturally and is then reabsorbed into the soil. This helps the surrounding environment because of the apple’s nutrients. Composting recreates this process at home. When you throw your apple core into the trash, it ends up in a landfill where it won’t have adequate air and soil to break down. Instead, when combined with other waste it creates methane, which is a greenhouse gas thirty times stronger than carbon dioxide. By switching to composting, you can reduce half of the trash you send to the landfill and recycle it into a material that is beneficial for the environment as opposed to causing harm to it.
What is compost used for?
Compost is great for any plant. As previously mentioned, you can add it to any soil to create a more nutrient-rich structure. Try adding a little to the top soil of your house plants and you’ll be amazed how they respond. You can also sprinkle compost on your lawn, your flower or vegetable beds, new planting areas, and around trees. If you have compost leftover, ask your neighbors if they could use some. Buying compost can be expensive, so you’ll be a popular neighbor if you offer your compost for free. Also consider donating your compost to a nonprofit urban garden, a community garden, local farms, or perhaps call some nearby school districts to see if they have a garden program.
I’m in! Where do I start? And please make it easy…
That’s the beauty of composting! It’s one of the easiest yet most advantageous projects you can undertake for both your garden and the planet. Making a compost pile is as simple as combining equal parts nitrogen and carbon, plus a few other simple ingredients. Don’t worry, nitrogen and carbon simply refer to nitrogen-rich organic materials and carbon-rich organic materials.
Carbon Rich Materials:
- Dry leaves
- Shredded Paper/Cardboard (try to avoid waxy and/or colored paper) – newspapers, toilet paper rolls, paper towels, paper plates, egg cartons, tissues
- Tea bags (preferably minus any staples)
- Dead pine needles
- Wood ash
- Nuts shells
- Corn cobs/stalks
Nitrogen Rich Materials:
- Fresh Grass clippings
- Recently trimmed garden waste
- Fruit waste
- Vegetable waste
- Any other non-animal food scraps (cereal, bread, etc.)
- Coffee grounds (including filters)
- Garden weeds (make sure there are no seeds otherwise they sprout in your compost pile)
- Manures (but not from humans or pets, as these may contain harmful viruses and bacteria)
Once you’ve gathered these ingredients, you add them in layers, starting with carbon. Spray each layer with a little water, but not too much – you don’t want the pile to be soaking; just moist. Keep adding continuous layers of nitrogen and carbon materials until the compost pile is as big as you want it. A good place to start is 3’x3’x3′.
Once you’ve finished your pile, add a thin layer of finished compost or high-quality soil. After you’ve layered all your ingredients, you’ll want to turn or mix up your pile once every couple of weeks to allow air in. This makes the compost process work faster. Keep the pile near a hose as you’ll also want to water it occasionally to keep it moist. You’ll know the process is working if the pile becomes warm or steams. This is because the microorganisms in the pile give off heat as they do their work. You’ll know your compost is complete when it looks and smells like dark soil. It should be crumbly without any large chunks in it.
What can’t I put in my compost pile?
While anything organic can be composted in nature, at home you should stick to the types of materials listed above. Avoid any animal-related product including meat, bones, dairy, and any part of eggs other than the shell. While these materials can be broken down, they often start to smell and may attract unwanted pests and rodents to your pile. The same is true for oils and fats, so avoid those as well. You also want to skip any diseased plants as they may spread their disease to your compost pile. Finally, it’s a good idea to shred the larger ingredients into smaller pieces, whether it’s leaves, paper, or even egg shells. This makes the composting process move along much faster.
Why does the ratio of nitrogen versus carbon vary on different websites?
The instructions vary from different sources because composters disagree about the best mix. Some believe there should be more nitrogen-rich materials while others believe there should be more carbon. The truth is, no matter what you put into your pile and in what ratio, all organic matter will break down eventually. The main reason for keeping your pile at a relatively similar ratio, other than speeding up the process, is that it keeps your pile from stinking.
Where and what should I put my compost in?
Because you’ll be making frequent trips to the compost pile, it’s a good idea to keep it close to your house. Try to avoid placing it near a tree. Tree roots are known to suck up the nutrients generated in your pile before you get to use it. As for what to put your pile in, that’s totally up to you. A compost pile can be just that, a pile and nothing else. Still, the idea of a decaying food pile may not be something you want to look at in your back yard. If that’s the case try an old trash can you’re not using. Or if you want to be fancy, there are compost bins available for sale. Many come with cranks that make the aeration process super easy. Also, before you start your pile, make sure to check your local compost ordinances and/or HOA regulations. Some areas do not allow for compost piles. (Crazy, right.)
What if I don’t have a backyard or my city/HOA are a bunch of jerks who don’t allow compost piles?
Not to worry, compost buddy! You can easily create an indoor composter. Remember that if you stick to the correct ratio of nitrogen/carbon materials, the pile won’t smell. You can also buy a commercially made indoor composter. Make sure to purchase a bin that allows room for more than a week’s worth of compost material. Households with 1-2 members are usually ok with 5-10 gallon container. For larger households, you probably want an 18-gallon container. Also make sure to buy a bin with a lid because an indoor compost pile will probably attract fruit flies without one. Or if you don’t mind worms, try vermicomposting, which uses live worms to break down the organic matter.
I still don’t want to make compost, but I don’t want to waste unnecessarily either…
If creating your own compost still doesn’t sound like a good idea, not to worry. There are ways you can be involved in composting without completing all the steps. As composting grows in popularity, more cities are picking up compost materials along with trash and recycling. To find out if your town does, simply look up your county’s sanitation department guidelines or call the municipality general information line. Chances are though, if the city offers curbside compost pickup you would probably already know about it. If they don’t, there are many organizations that you can pay to come and collect your compostable materials. Some of these companies will even take the animal food scraps that you wouldn’t use in your home composting project. If you can’t find a private company or nonprofit to pick up your compost, try finding a public or private compost drop off location. Many farms accept donated compost materials, as do many farmer’s markets. Do a little digging and you’re sure to find a happy home for all those unused scraps. (Find a Composter is a good place to try.) Then you can rest assured you’ve done your part to cut down food waste and help nurture our beautiful planet.
Want to get even more into composting? Check out the EPA’s Excess Food Opportunities Map. Have friends that want to learn how to compost? Send them here! Have other friends that want to learn how to compost? Send them here too! Want to do more for our world? Buy your green products at My Green Marketplace, where everything you buy helps to protect the planet. And check out the My Green Marketplace blog for more great green tips and news.