WHY COMPOST AT ALL?
Along with fuel efficiency, water conservation, and reduction in meat consumption, home composting is one of the most environmentally beneficial activities of modern society. Yard and food wastes make up approximately 30% of the waste stream in the US. Not only does composting sucessfully divert a significant portion of your family's waste stream from the landfill and water treatment facilities, it is a natural method of recycling organic materals into valuable humus. Finished compost is nutritious enough to use as a soil amendment, buffering the pH and helping to retain water in the soil. It can cool the soil's surface, and help mitigate erosion. Why buy topsoil when you create your own endless supply?
Home composting also serves as an invaluable educational tool, teaching youngsters about conservation, the cycle of life, and inter-connectedness of the natural world. If it gets your child thinking about science or biology, or voluntarily participating in gardening and yard work, isn't it well worth the effort?
HOW TO COMPOST
Like death and taxes, composting happens - whether we want it to or not. Though all organic matter will eventually decompose (despite neglect), the trick is to get your pile to decompose as fast as you can fill it. The rate at which breakdown occurs depends on several factors: oxygenation, temperature, water content, particulate surface area, and the carbon:nitrogen ratio (see chart below). Like painting, composting is more art than a rigid science, and can at times require a bit of finesse and skill. However, with patience and a little practice, you can have ready-to-use humus for your garden in 6-8 weeks.
|Factors Affecting Rate ||Description|
| Oxygenation||Oxygen is required for respiration by all aerobic inhabitants within the pile. Adequate ventilation, wind, convention currents and manual turning or mixing will help keep the anaerobic critters from producing foul odors.|
| Temperature||The optimum temperature for fast decomposition is between 90 and 135 degrees F. Whether it is due to cold climate or insufficient bacterial activity, when the temperature falls below this, decomposition will slow, but not cease. To keep temperatures elevated, try an insulation jacket or better placement for maximizing radiant solar heat. Also choose black colored bins in cooler climate zones. |
| Water Content||An efficient composter needs to have a moisture content around 50% (feels like a damp towel). If it is too dry, decomposition will slow down considerably, while overly wet piles can smell. Keep pile covered during heavy rains, and add rain water when dry spells occur (chlorine in municipal water can kill the organisms in your living system).|
| Surface Area||Maximize this by shredding and chipping all clippings and waste into small pieces. The more area you expose to micro-organisms, the larger the dinner table, and the faster the decomposition.|
| Carbon:Nitrogen Ratio ||Organic materials rich in nitrogen are referred to as GREENS (fresh veggie scraps or grass clippings), while the others can be lumped together as BROWNS (hay, twigs, dried leaves). A good general rule of thumb is use 2-3 parts brown to 1 part green. Always remember to layer, layer, layer. If an ammonia smell is detected, ease up on the nitrogen-rich greens.|
WHAT TO COMPOST
So long as they have a high surface to volume ratio, most plant materials from your garden will work beautifully in your pile. You want to use common sense when adding larger items like sequoia branches or giant rubber tree leaves - shread them or chip them up into smaller pieces - the more surface area available to you resident critters, the faster the decomposition process. Plant food scraps from the kitchen, shredded cardboard boxes, and sawdust from untreated wood will all contribute nicely to your organic potpourri, just don't put too much of any one thing in - it can throw off the N-P-K balance, not to mention the pH. Always remember to throw in a handful of good garden soil to innoculate the new pile with living organisms. A few earthworms and rollie pollies are a nice addition, too. Though it is not required, many individuals add compost starters and accelerators to help their pile along --- this is fine, just avoid the synthetic additives and seek out natural and organic sources with minimal packaging.
|From the Yard||From the Kitchen|
|grass clippingsleavesshrub and tree wastesawdust and wood chips||coffee groundstea bagsveggie and fruit scrapscorn husks|
WHAT NOT TO COMPOST
Though all organic matter can be broken down naturally, some materials are just not suitable for the home compost pile. First and foremost, no human or pet excrement should be added to the bins. Feces can harbor harmful bacteria, and there is no guarantee that the high temperatures of your pile will sucessfully kill them. Second, stay away from greasy foods, dairy products, meat scraps and bones. Not only can their decompostion result in 'colorful' aromas, they can attract rodents. Unless you are a seasoned composter, it is best to avoid them completely. Natural chemicals in citrus peels, eucalyptus leaves, and pine needles can actually slow down your compost pile - avoid mixing them into your artistic masterpiece. Ashes from your fireplace are basically worthless --- they are already broken down as much as possible (remember the heat and flames), and therefore have little potential energy to offer the micro organisms in your pile. Beside, ash can drastically alter the pH of the soil. If your prize tomatoes experienced their worst blight on record, you probably want to keep their diseased leaves and stems out of the pile, especially if the finished compost will be returning to your vegetable garden. Why propagate pestilence? Rocks, plastic and styrofoam are not going to do much for your creation either, so keep them out.
WHAT IS THE BEST COMPOSTER FOR ME?
Purchasing a compost bin is as much a personal preference choice as it is a functional choice. While monetary considerations should always be taken into account, also think about such issues as visibility, aesthetics and capacity. Each compost bin on this site will have a Specification Grid highlighting important features and benefits. Some bins are more educational than others, a few require a bit more maintenance, while several allow participation by the whole family. Some are attractive. Others ugly. A few are actually fun, while a couple are virtually problem-free.
THERE ARE CRITTERS IN MY BIN !
After your compost pile is established (1-4 weeks) you will begin seeing various and sundry 'critters' throughout the pile's contents. These little helpers, which usually migrate from other parts of the garden or the soil beneath the pile, can range from arthropods and flying insects to micro-organisms like bacteria and fungi. This soil-borne community is critical to the decomposition process! Do not attempt to eradicate or remove these beneficial creatures. Do not use any chemicals or sprays that would normally harm such animals and fungi. If possible, use rainwater from your Rain Barrel to moisten the pile, as chlorinated municipal water sources can slow down the natural rate of breakdown.
WHAT AM I DOING WRONG?
Occasionally, a compost pile's performance is less than optimal. That's OK, even the experts have problems from time to time. Make sure that your pile has sufficient warmth for high levels of bacterial activity. Most bins are made from black recycled plastic so that they can absorb radiant heat from the sun. Colder climates might require insulation jackets be placed around the pile. Moisture is another factor that can cause problems. Without enough water, the pile remains too dry and decomposition can slow down considerably. But remember not to over water, as that may cause the organic material to rot anaerobically (without oxygen), which may lead to odoriferous fumes. A well drained, well-moistened compost pile with moderately elevated temperatures and the proper C:N mix seems to work best.
WHAT ABOUT RODENTS?
Like cockroaches and pigeons, rodents will always be a part of human society. While few bins are 100% rodent proof, there are a few steps you can take to avoid rodent entry into your sacred pile of humus. First, make sure the bottom lip of the bin is buried under the soil's surface (rodents usually enter through openings in the bottom). Second, keep all lids and doors (if your bin has them) securely fastened and/or locked (some thieves like raccoons, can easily work latches). If you have a known rodent problem, select bins that do not have large openings between the slats. Moreover, when discarding your food scraps, bury them in the compost pile's center, so that access is difficult. To prevent entry from below, purchase a few yards of chicken coop wire with a small mesh diameter, then line the bottom of the bin or bury the wire a few inches below the surface. If at all possible, avoid using poisons as a means of control; instead, try predator urine, used kittie litter, hot pepper wax, or peppermint extract. As a last resort, purchase a few Pest Repellant that allow for release elsewhere.