You’ve probably heard about the benefits of composting — creating rich soil for your garden and keeping certain waste out of landfills or your garbage disposal. Composting can seem like a daunting undertaking with a very big learning curve. However, with a little information and some basics for getting started, you can begin to return specific “waste” to Mother Earth.
What is composting? According to Denver Urban Gardens, “composting is the purposeful decomposition of organic materials, to create humus.” “The art of composting has been part of our global culture since ancient times,” according to HowToCompost.org.
Why compost? “Studies have shown that home composting can divert an average of 700 lbs. of material per household per year from the waste stream…while at the same time producing a high quality and inexpensive soil amendment,” says to HowToCompost.org. Compost can help anything grow. Because of the rich, moist soil created, you can reduce water consumption by as much as 20 percent. It also acts as a natural pesticide and a soil conditioner.
How to Compost? Backyard composting can be done in a variety of ways, from creating a composting pile to using containers. Composting systems or bins can be constructed at home or purchased commercially. The methods used may vary, depending on the system you choose, but the guidelines remain the same.
As adapted from the Denver Urban Gardens website, here are the steps to follow:
- Gather carbon and nitrogen materials. The ratio should be 2/3 carbon, 1/3 nitrogen, making up a pile measuring about 3’x3’x3′. Using a composting bin requires all the same components, conditions and attention as an open pile.
- Carbon (browns) include: newspaper, non-shiny cardboard, paper towel and toilet paper rolls, wool, cotton, vacuum cleaner debris, dryer lint, coffee filters, stalks from perennial plants, end of season annual plants, branches, dry leaves, egg cartons made from paper, non-glossy paper.
- Nitrogen (greens) include: fruit or vegetable peels and cores (no need to remove seeds), coffee grounds, all non-meat food scraps, pet or human hair, manure from herbivores (plant-eaters only), seasonal cuttings from the vegetable or flower garden.
- Never put bones, dairy, meat, fat, or any plants treated with pesticide in a compost pile.
- Scrape back about 1 inch of topsoil. Add a 4–6 inches layer of chopped, mixed carbon materials, then a 2–3 inch layer of chopped nitrogen materials. Add one handful of garden soil. Mix carbon and nitrogen layers with a garden fork and water until pile feels like a wrung-out sponge.
- Continue adding layers of carbon and nitrogen material, watering and mixing as described above, until the pile reaches at least 3 feet in height. Cover pile with a sheet of black plastic.
The pile should be turned once a week, rotating materials from top to bottom. Add water if the pile doesn’t feel like a wrung-out sponge. Put chopped food scraps in the middle of the pile, covering them with some of the carbon material. If your pile starts to smell, it is too wet or has too much nitrogenous material. Pull it apart for a while or add carbon items like cardboard/paper, dry leaves or mowed straw. If the pile is not decomposing, it is not wet enough, so add water. Activators such as fish emulsion and seaweed can also be added. If your outdoor pile is attracting animals, be sure to bury food scraps and turn your pile more often.
Your compost is ready when it looks like dark brown potting soil, when the contents are not recognizable and the pile is reduced to about half its original size. Let it sit untouched under plastic for two months longer. If your goal is to continue composting, you will now begin a new pile in another location.
When ready to use, dig a couple handfuls of mature compost into the top 4 inches of soil for plants. Compost can also be applied lightly as a top-dressing several times each season around all actively growing plants. Since compost is extremely rich in nutrients, it should only comprise 25 percent of your potting soil.
Composting happens naturally, so don’t worry about getting it exactly right. If you use the right ingredients — carbon, nitrogen, water, air and time — you can mess up the order and still end up with great results. You’ll learn as you go what works best. Have fun, know you’re supporting Mother Earth, and get ready for a beautiful, healthier garden!
Donna Mazzitelli was a contributing author to Speaking Your Truth, Vols. I & II and the editor of Vol. III. As “The Word Heartiste,” she helps others connect to their story and craft it with heart through her coaching, writing and editing services. In 2010, she founded Bellisima Living. Learn more at www.writingwithdonna.com and www.bellisimaliving.com.