Though the vast amount of available information on composting is incredibly helpful, that same vastness can be overwhelming. For the beginner composter, this is an introductory look at the world of wiggly worms, soil enrichment and carbon footprint reduction.
What is compost? Compost is made from an equal mixture of brown and green organic matter, e.g., dead plants, table scraps, eggshells, coffee grounds and even lint. With the proper combination of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and water, helpful microorganisms will feast on this pile of unwanted materials and produce incredibly useful fertilizer.
"Any way you use it is beneficial," says Sonya Harper of Peter's Garden Center. "Regardless of the problem facing your plants, adding organic matter is the ... best healer."
There are many different options for storing your compost outside. The easiest of these may be the freestanding pile. To begin your pile, start with yard waste -- including dry leaves, lawn clippings and pulled weeds -- and then layer kitchen scraps on top. As the pile begins to decompose, helped along by your turning the pile and adding moisture as needed, beneficial bacteria will be released, and you will be left with a dark, nutrient-rich pile of compost. Other ways of storing your compost include static bins (new materials are added to the top, and a door on the bottom allows easy access to the most nutrient-rich compost), tumblers (easy-to-turn manufactured containers that let in oxygen to speed up the composting process) and wire cylinders (using chicken wire to house the compost pile). Compost even retains soil moisture in the heat of the summer and protects roots from the cold in the winter.
However, not everyone has the means for traditional outdoor composting. Spacious yards with lots of soil can be hard, if not impossible, to come by in larger cities. For those eco-friendly city dwellers who still want to churn out compost, there are some easy alternatives.
Vermicomposting, or composting with worms, is perhaps the most common. Inside a ventilated container, place your red wiggler worms on bedding materials -- such as dampened, shredded paper or leaves -- and then add your kitchen scraps. It is important to keep in mind that bones, pet waste, dairy products, meat scraps, diseased plants and pernicious weeds should not be included in any composting venture, according to the Sunset Western Garden Book. As the weeks and months go by, replace the depleting bedding with new leaves or paper waste, and be sure to keep the bin at the dampness of a wrung-out sponge; your worms will die otherwise.
Knowing there are worms wriggling, flourishing and banqueting in your home is not always an easy thought to bear. However, as Harper explains, "they don't smell. They never need to be cleaned. And if you use commercial composting bins, they can't escape." The benefits of these squirmy worms far outweigh the possible ick factor. You even can use the collected liquid as a fertilizer "tea." Adding a "50-50 mixture of the liquid and water to your garden acts like an extra dose of vitamins for plants," Harper says.
If dealing with your compostable waste yourself is too much to bear, look into whether your municipality has the means of collecting the waste. In San Francisco, for example, the Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance went into effect in 2009, and according to a city press release, the residents and businesses there are "required to separate and put their recycling, composting and trash in the right place." The city even goes as far as providing residents with a kitchen compost pail if they are unable to obtain one themselves. Seattle and New York City have similar composting strategies, as do many other cities around the nation. If your municipality does not have a means to collect compost, ask your local government to start a program.
Whether you have acres to spare and are using compost as mulch or are tending to a tiny windowsill garden, using compost will heal soil, help retain moisture and add nutritional value for your plants to grow to their fullest potential.