Nutrition Articles

A Beginner's Guide to Composting

4 Steps to Reduce Waste and Fertilize Your Garden

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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.
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Member Comments

  • VIGILANTONE
    "DIY compost pallets"

    Make very sure your using old pallets that are "heat treated" and not chemically treated. It generally says it's heat treated on the pallet somewhere. - 4/25/2014 8:43:46 AM
  • We used the binless "freestyle" method for years, but when that part of our yard needed to be used for vehicle parking, we had a wooden "bin" built, using lumber from our old fence. With two small areas side by side, it provides for air circulation and lots of worm activity. Throughout the winter, we have also buried newspaper packets with our garbage under the snow. Now we have two months before we need to use the garden again, but the snow is still preventing turning the soil over just yet. Thanks for your suggestions!! - 4/6/2014 6:14:38 AM
  • We've been composting for years. Our biggest problem is the COLD! Not much breaks down when it's frozen solid during a long North Dakota Winter (and no, we don't have room indoors for a bin). - 3/30/2014 6:22:54 PM
  • There are many kitchen composters now available for those who want to compost, but the necessary space. These come in both stainless steel and ceramic and will sit nicely on a kitchen countertop. I never knew that dryer lint could be composted! That's a new one. :)
    - 3/29/2014 7:40:26 PM
  • FRECKLEPUP
    I can't compost because of local restrictions and lack of space but I do wash and dry eggshells, break them up into tiny pieces and add them to my soil. I also add used coffee grounds to the soil around acid loving plants. Both work well. - 3/29/2014 12:49:07 PM
  • JUDYERAE
    I have been composting on and off for several years. I learned something new... dryer lint! That's great. - 3/29/2014 10:10:35 AM
  • NANASAN2
    I have been composting for over 15 years using 2 small commercial bins from Costco at $40 each. I keep a large plastic container with lid under my sink and everything goes in there to be added at my convenience. Seasonally I dig out the bottom black gold and add to potting mix and any flower beds. Great stuff! Since we also recycle that leaves us with only about 2-3 bags of trash per week. Saves on buyng commercial potting soil too since I can mix it with plain old dirt and the plants love it. - 3/29/2014 7:33:56 AM
  • What a great article! This is a wonderful introduction to setting up a compost pile. Thank you so much! - 8/29/2013 8:34:56 AM
  • DADKAJ
    i was taught that cooked food stuff should not go into the compost, it attracts rodents. only raw plant based material, or egg shells and teabags and coffee sediments can go into it as non-raw material, plus paper, carton, etc... which is not food however. composting enzymes help a lot, too. recently i noticed that insects thrive in it, but i do not bother. what bothers me is the weed seeds when it was cut too late and one cannot prevent having some of it in the compost. they will germinate next year as i indorporate the compost into the soil later on. - 8/28/2013 9:52:40 AM
  • I compost dryer lint and do just was suggested in a previous post: I keep a large ziplock Witt the dryer and empty it's contents in the Baggie. Also, I add the dryer sheets that I occasionally use. Only dryer sheets that say they can be composted should be added. One brand is seventh Generation. Usually the ones found in health food stores are ok, but you need to read to find out.
    Also, I compost bread, as long as its not cheese bread or bread with a lot of other ingredients such as pepperoni rolls. Buns, sliced bread and bagels have been put into mine but the secret is to shred items small. I don't just dump bagels in my bin. You can but it takes a lot longer to break down.
    I don't know about the ink comment. I add newspapers to mine and we all know that newsprint is full of formaldehyde. I don't know what colored ink has in it that would be any worse. I'd ask around.
    My question is about red worms. I ve asked fishermen galore about red worms and they only use night crawlers. I'm not getting any help at all on my red worm answer. Does anyone know where to get red worms? I have 5 different kinds of compost bins and the one that works the best after all of this time is my first one that my son made for me as a high school science experiment. It is a 4x4 pit in the ground outlined in 4x4s with holes drilled for rebar to keep it all in place. By far, it's the best bin. I can use night crawlers in this bin! Love it! I just can't get him to make me another one!
    Thanks everyone! Good luck! - 4/29/2013 7:08:53 PM
  • Wow, I have thought about composting in the past. This article is very informative - seems like it is a bit of work but certainly it seems worth it! - 4/29/2013 12:29:18 PM
  • I've been composting for years and years and have never had a problem adding bread to the pile. The only things I don't compost are dairy, meats and fish and that's to keep away the living creatures. Not sure why anyone would say you can't compost bread without providing a logical reason why not. I would say go ahead and experiment and have fun. - 12/11/2012 10:40:26 AM
  • I was at an event and they had a display about composting. They said you couldn't compost bread. Any idea why? I'm thinking maybe it's commercial bread full of chemicals, but I don't see why I shouldn't be able to compost homemade bread... - 4/27/2010 7:18:49 AM
  • when it says colored ink is that printer ink, pen ink, or just any ink? What would be acceptable? - 12/15/2009 3:34:07 PM
  • This is a well written article. I never knew I could "compose" my dryer lint. How interesting as I keep it in a bag in the laundry room until it is full and can be thrown away. Now I will recycle it. - 4/8/2009 8:02:59 PM

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