Composting 101

By Kristen Castillo

February 14, 2020 5 min read

Composting is a sustainable way to get rid of yard waste and food scraps that would otherwise end up in a landfill and repurpose them for plant care. The composting process breaks down organic matter. The resulting nutrient-rich material, known as humus, is good for soil and reduces the need for chemical fertilizers, providing for healthy plants and solid harvests. While composting might seem intimidating, the process is inexpensive and easy. Stacy Caprio is a consumer who has been composting for two years. She was inspired to start composting because her grandmother has always done it. The best part is "knowing you are not putting food garbage directly into a landfill and instead being able to contribute to the earth's natural lifecycle," she says. For this do-it-yourself soil boost, all you need is the right materials and equipment.

*Compost 101

Composting is only for organic material. The better variety of organic food scraps you add, the more compost you will have, and the more nutrient-rich it will be.

"These organic materials are either carbon based or nitrogen based," says garden blogger Mindy McIntosh-Shetter. Brown materials like dried leaves or cardboard are rich in carbon, while green materials like vegetable and fruit scraps are high in nitrogen. She says the ideal ratio is 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen.

Tatyana Rodriguez, creator of the blog Florence's Flowers, suggests adding tea leaves, coffee grinds, banana peels, dry branches and clean, broken eggshells to compost. Countless other materials can be added. Use whatever you happen to be cooking up in the kitchen for inspiration.

There are a number of materials to avoid, however. Don't add weeds, because they'll just produce more weeds. Avoid processed foods, meat products and dairy products, which can give off an odor or attract unwanted animals. While fruit is good for the compost pile, steer clear of citrus peels, and remove fruit pits, as they can take a long time to break down.

McIntosh-Shetter says to leave out foods from the nightshade family, such as tomatoes, potatoes and peppers. Their roots can have nematodes, a garden pest that will feast on your compost. She also suggests not adding grass clippings, since they can be slimy and stinky.

As for paper products, leave out glossy paper, which likely contains a plastic-like coating and won't break down. And when using cardboard, first remove any stickers and tape.

Still not sure what to add or leave out? Follow McIntosh-Shetter's advice: "Do not add anything that Mother Nature did not make."

You can add items to the compost pile whenever you have them. Some people add kitchen scraps to the bin once a day. Other composters use a layering strategy: First, add cardboard. Add a layer of green matter, and then add a shovel full of garden soil. Repeat the layers until the bin fills up.

*Maintenance

Keep the compost moist, especially during the spring, summer and fall. One way to do this is to position your compost bin in partial shade. If you live in a dry climate, you can water the pile. Or if it's uncovered, allow rain to permeate the pile without oversaturating.

Add a shovel's worth of garden soil twice a month for beneficial bacteria and fungi that will help the decomposition process.

Every two to four weeks, turn the compost pile so it aerates properly. "If you turn the compost more frequently, you will produce compost more quickly," says Rodriguez. You'll know it is ready for a turn when you no longer see steam coming from it.

*Compost Tips

"Once your compost is broken down, use it, but do not use it all," says McIntosh-Shetter. "Set some aside to reintroduce the healthy bacteria and fungus that is required for decomposition." She urges composters to have two bins available: one to be filled this year and another to be started next year. This rotation will allow the compost to break down completely. If you want to speed up the breakdown process, before you place kitchen scraps in the bin, cut them into small pieces, or freeze them to make them mushy once they thaw.

Compost bins aren't the most aesthetically pleasing, but try to keep them nice. "Do make your compost bin, regardless if it is DIY or commercially made, a decorative part of your landscape," says McIntosh-Shetter, noting you can train flowering vines to grow up the sides of your bin for color and shade.

Soil is an important life force of a garden, so improving your soil is guaranteed to bring a great return. A compost rich in organic materials is one of the best garden investments, and a one-way ticket to beautiful blooms and bountiful harvests.

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