There are very few logical reasons why anyone with a backyard or garden shouldn't be composting. In addition to promoting a more bountiful and healthier harvest, the process also helps prevent the propagation of landfills, which are systematically destroying many of Earth's natural ecosystems. Biodegradable waste typically makes up 30% of a household's outgoing garbage. Simple re-appropriation cuts down food expenses, as well as garden and lawn maintenance costs.
The process entails using raw food waste, combined with dry and green plant materials, to create a natural, nutrient rich fertilizer. In composting, micro and macro-organisms decompose biodegradable materials to create a substance called humus, which is not to be confused with hummus, the beloved condiment made from garbanzo beans. Humus promotes sustainable soil health and delivers nutrients to plants in a form they can use. This leads to higher yields and helps prevent plant disease. The long-term use of chemical fertilizers invariably leads to a lifeless, barren soil that’s incapable of supporting plant growth without adding significant inputs.
Most raw organic waste belongs in the compost pile. In the typical home, this translates to fruit and vegetable leftovers that haven't come in contact with oils or chemicals. Start by keeping a lidded container in the kitchen for organic waste. Bigger clumps should be chopped to pieces, and it’s best to empty the container onto the compost pile frequently. A well-balanced compost pile also requires the use of dry and green plants (leaves, twigs, etc.). These materials help to balance the carbon and nitrogen levels of the resulting humus, and allow for oxygen flow, which is key to decomposition.
Several other biodegradable materials can be composted including paper, coffee grounds and tea leaves, eggshells, grass clippings, fireplace ashes, hair and fur, and all-natural fabrics and fibers like cotton, wool, and leather. Some of these items, such as leather, will take longer to decompose than others.
Meat, bones, and fish scraps generally should not be composted as they will usually attract pests. Weeds and diseased plants should also be avoided as they will most likely propagate in the fertilized area. Plants that show signs of any disease should be disposed of properly.
Creating a Compost Area
The composting area should be planned out considering factors such as ease of access, exposure to the sun and water, and proximity to neighbors who might object to the odors emitted by the process. It’s a good idea to choose an area where the earth is bare, to allow for worms and other organisms to enter the compost.
A four-foot squared area is a common size for a one-family household. Rotating the pile across various locations is a great way to replenish life to deteriorated areas of land. It is advisable to create a boxed in area, oftentimes made of wood, with a lid. This helps control moisture and heat, but also to keep out unwanted pests or too much rain. However, all you really need is a space large enough. If you prefer not to build a box yourself, manufactured welded wire bins are available online and generally work pretty well.
Materials in a compost pile are initially layered, alternating between dry plant materials, organic waste, and green plant materials. The compost should sit after the initial layering but must be stirred or turned periodically (every 2-4 weeks or so) or with the subsequent addition of biodegradable materials. This can be done with a pitchfork or shovel. The pile should be kept moist but should not be wet.
Decomposition is a Process
As with any decomposition process, some odors should be expected. However, a strong offensive odor is usually as sign that something isn’t right. It usually means there’s too much moisture or an improper mix of dry and green materials. A thin layer of soil on top of the compost can aid in masking some odors emitted by the pile, but remember that a warm, steaming pile is a good sign that the organisms within are busy making humus.
The time required to complete the process can vary widely based on several factors including moisture, temperature, diversity of the organisms that are present, and materials used (carbon to nitrogen ratio). The process can be accelerated using one of several organic 'compost starters' commercially available that can help to speed things up, but are certainly not necessary. In six months to a year, or once it becomes humus and takes on a rich, brown consistency, it’s ready to be used in the garden.