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A Beginner's Guide to Composting

4 Steps to Reduce Waste and Fertilize Your Garden
  -- By Nicole Nichols, Health Educator & Jenny Sigler, SparkPeople Contributor
When organic matter such as leaves, grass clippings and food scraps break down, you get compost, a dark, dirt-like "soil" that is rich in nutrients. Compost happens even without human involvement; for example, the leaves that fall on the forest floor (or even in your own backyard) will compost and return much-needed nutrients to the soil, like a slow-release fertilizer. How quickly natural matter turns to compost depends on many factors, from the size of the organic matter to the temperature and oxygen availability. It can take anywhere from a few weeks to several years for organic matter to turn into compost.

Many people, from gardeners to farmers to environmentalists, choose to compost for a variety of reasons. Although nature does all of the work, human involvement can help speed up the composting process to ensure the best possible conditions for nature to do its work. Composting is easy, and it has many benefits for the environment and your own backyard.

Why compost?
Food and lawn waste makes up 25% of all waste in landfills. Although these natural materials are biodegradable, they do not break down properly in landfills, which are so densely packed that oxygen isn't readily available. When oxygen is withheld during the decomposition process, the organic matter may emit methane gas, which is 20 times more toxic than carbon dioxide. All this methane is bad for the environment, and the inhospitable conditions of landfills make it difficult if not impossible for natural materials to break down properly. Each ton of organic matter we can divert from a landfill can save 1/3 of a ton of greenhouse gases from being emitted into the environment. Plus, composting can provide you with your very own “black gold” for free, allowing you to condition and enrich your soil.

When we think of recycling, plastic, paper, and glass may come to mind, but the most basic method of recycling is the timeless act of breaking down decaying organic matter and returning it back to the soil to once again be used for other living organisms to thrive upon. Let's stop thinking of yard waste and kitchen scraps as garbage and start reducing the waste we produce so we can save it from heading to the landfills to recycle and reuse it in our own backyards.

Composting is the most natural and beneficial thing we can do for our gardens, flowers, vegetable plants and trees to replenish nutrients, improve drainage and water retention, and protect plant roots when used as mulch.

Anyone can compost, whether you live on a 500-acre farm or in a 500 square foot apartment. At the most basic level, you can collect your kitchen and yard scraps in a pile outside, in a store-bought compost bin on your back porch, or in a plastic bin under the kitchen sink and then wait for Mother Nature to do her work.

Step #1: Set up your bin
There are many types of containers for composting, but you don't need a container to compost. Containers can help speed the decomposition process (by controlling temperature and moisture) and keep your compost scraps out of sight. The needs of an urban gardener vary greatly from that of the country dweller, so consider the size and needs of your garden before starting to compost. All compost heaps, contained or not, should be approximately 3 x 3 feet to really be most effective. So let’s break down the various composting bins. <pagebreak> As you can see, bins can be simple or complex, homemade or store-bought. There is a composting method for every budget, space and garden. <pagebreak>

Step #2: Gather your gear
All you really need to successfully compost is a place to put your yard and kitchen waste. Depending on your garden size and its proximity to your compost pile, you might also need the following tools, all of which you can purchase at a garden center or home improvement store: Step #3: Add to your heap
Now that you have your bin and your tools, it's time to compost! The most important thing is to add the right materials and avoid the wrong ones. Even if all you do is throw your kitchen scraps into your compost bin, you're still doing OK—your scraps will break down eventually, even if you never turn it, water it, aerate it, or "balance" its contents. As a general guide, if it came from a plant, you can compost it.

What to Compost
Grass and lawn clippings
Fruit and vegetable peels, rinds and scraps
Tea bags
Coffee grounds
Garden waste
Weeds that have not seeded
Wood chips and sawdust (from untreated wood)
Dryer lint
Shredded paper

What NOT to Compost
Chemically treated wood
Diseased plants
Human waste
Pet waste
Pernicious weeds
Dairy products
Animal food products
Animal bones
Fats and oils
Cooked food
Peanut butter
Glossy paper
Paper with colored ink
Large chunks of compostable materials

If you want to help your compost break down faster, you can put more time and thought into it in order to achieve the ideal conditions for decomposition. Compost, while easy enough, is an exercise in balance. To best "balance" your compost pile, include 1 part nitrogen-rich "greens" for every 15-30 parts of a carbon-rich "browns" in your compost heap. Think of a compost pile like a sandwich with alternating layers. The first step is to build a foundation with a 4 inch layer of bulky twigs and small branches. This allows for air to flow upward through it and also keep it off the ground. Water this layer liberally before doing alternating 2 inch layers of greens and browns, watering every so often. Do this until your heap is 3-5 feet tall, making sure that no layer is packed too firmly. You want air to be able to reach the inner parts of the pile as much as possible. Finally, sprinkle the top of the heap with a few handfuls of soil from your garden. This soil, while not totally necessary, speeds up the process by using the hundreds of millions of bacteria found in it to your advantage. You will know the process is working when the pile generates heat as it decomposes. <pagebreak>

Step #4: Now you wait
If you do nothing from this point, you will probably have finished compost in approximately one year. Most people try to nudge Mother Nature into a speedier delivery on their black gold though by keeping a healthy amount of moisture (water) and air flowing within the pile. As the heat increases in the pile, moisture is lost, so it is important to regularly water your compost to keep it damp, not dripping wet. Using an aerator or pitchfork to turn your pile, anywhere from once a week to a couple times per month, will help reintroduce oxygen. The more often you turn, the quicker it will break down. Weekly aerating and watering should produce a finished compost heap in several months.

Compost shouldn't look or smell gross. When done properly it should not attract animals (although the ones that make it into your backyard may help themselves to the food scraps on occasion). If you notice a foul rotten egg smell, you've put something from the "do NOT compost" list into your pile, it's not receiving enough oxygen or it's getting too wet. To correct this, work in some dry "browns" such as straw, peanut shells, or sawdust. If your pile smells like ammonia, you have added too many nitrogen-rich "green" materials, so work in more browns.

Finished compost smells earthy, even sweet, is moist like a wrung-out sponge, and is dark like coffee grounds. Work at least 2-4 inches of this material into your garden, use as needed in potted plants, or spread around trees and garden beds as mulch. It is among the best substances nature can provide to a gardener!

Composting involves patience, but the reward is absolutely worth it! You can skip on synthetic fertilizers and soil amenders, which cost money and may hurt the environment. Compost also balances your soil’s texture, restores nutrients, and diverts countless pounds of useable organic waste from our landfills.