If you’re still bagging grass clippings and fallen leaves to be hauled off to the landfill, make this summer the season you declare your independence from the 30-gallon plastic bag.
Composting can eliminate your dependence on chemical fertilizers, improve the quality of your soil, reduce the burden on your community’s landfill and lessen your need for soil amendments and those evil black plastic bags. Mixing finished compost into sandy soil helps it to absorb and retain water, while mixing finished compost into clay soil loosens it up and allows in more air.
“The U.S. creates 50 percent of the world’s garbage, and more than 65 percent of what we dispose of is organic,” according to Southlake, Texas, master composter Charlie Shiner.
Don’t know how to get started?
Here’s a primer to help you join the now sizable segment of homeowners who are hot to rot.
A COMPOST ‘RECIPE’
Cakes can be concocted with all kinds of complicated ingredient lists, but every cook knows the basic four are all you really need: sugar, butter, flour and eggs.
So it is with turning yard waste into delectable dirt to feed to your garden. Your composting basic four: greens, browns, water and air.
Greens: These are organic materials that are high in nitrogen. The weeds you pulled up from your flower bed, the tomato plants that succumbed to the heat, the grass clippings, if you’re not comfortable leaving them on the lawn. (Although leaving your grass clippings on the lawn is an elemental form of “composting.” The clippings decompose and add organic matter back into the soil.)
Browns: Browns are high in carbon. Leaves in fall, dead branches cut in small pieces — carbon sources are abundant, and the optimal carbon-nitrogen ratio is about 30-to-1, according to Shiner, though there’s no need to get out a calculator.
Water: This is necessary for the microorganisms that do the work of decomposition. For optimal decomposition, your compost pile should have the moisture feel of a wrung-out sponge, Shiner says. Too little water, and decomposition slows way down; too much water, and you create an environment where anaerobic bacteria (bacteria that don’t use oxygen) take over. Anaerobes can produce ammonia and sulfur compounds, making for smelly compost. Which brings us to our fourth ingredient …
Air: This is needed to keep those good, aerobic bacteria productive, and the way to incorporate air into your compost is to turn or move it. Turning every three to five days is optimal, and will get you usable dirt in the shortest amount of time. It doesn’t really hurt the ultimate decomposition if you don’t aerate your pile that often; it just slows things down.
‘COOKING’ YOUR COMPOST
It is, perhaps, overdoing the recipe analogy to say that your compost “cooks,” but actively metabolizing bacteria give off heat, causing your compost pile to heat up.
Shiner has been recording the temperatures of his compost pile since he began composting, much in the way that some gardeners record planting dates, rain and harvest dates.
On his first day of composting, Shiner’s compost went from 65 degrees to 135 degrees, a sign that good things were happening to his heap. The second day, the temperature was up to 140 degrees. On the third day, the temperature had dropped some, so he turned it, giving it a shot of air and eventually getting things “cooking” again.
Compost that is frequently watered and aerated can be ready to use as flower-bed mulch in as little as three weeks, though it won’t be near to being fully decomposed at that point.
Lorrie Anderle, recycling coordinator for the city of Arlington, Texas, says that would-be composters don’t need to take such an active approach to composting. “Cold composting,” or “the lazy man’s composting” as it’s called at our house, involves little more than heaping your yard scraps in an out-of-the way pile, letting the sprinkler or the skies water it, and turning the compost heap every month or so. It could take a year or more to get usable dirt with this passive method, but it will eventually decompose to a nice, organic-rich humus to work into your garden soil or to sprinkle on your lawn to improve the “tilth,” or crumbliness, of your soil.
OTHER ‘INGREDIENTS’ TO ADD
While yard scraps will probably make up the bulk of your compost, many people incorporate other organic waste items. So many items can be composted, it’s easier to say what shouldn’t go into your compost pile than to list the shoulds, so here’s a list of no-no’s.
Do NOT put in your compost pile:
Meat, fat or dairy products. These items create an odor that attracts pests like raccoons and rats.
Noxious weeds and seeds of difficult weeds, such as nut sedge, that you are worried about spreading.
Kitchen scraps, such as vegetable peelings and overripe fruit, can be added to your compost, and, since they are quite wet, they can speed up decomposition. One important caveat: If you are going to add kitchen scraps, be sure to bury them under about 6 inches of yard-waste material to avoid attracting pests, Anderle says.
Other possible mix-ins include sawdust and coffee grounds (a good source of nitrogen, according to “The Complete Compost Gardening Guide” by Barbara Pleasant). Most anything that is made from plant materials and can be torn or cut into small bits will work. Butch Singh, of Arlington, composts his phone books.
Where you should park your compost pile is probably your next question. If you live on acreage or can screen off a far corner of your yard with bushes, you might choose to just build a compost pile on the ground, but most urban and suburban dwellers want to keep their compost in a bin.
Bins range in price from homemade (often the most ecofriendly option) to about $300. Consider convenience, durability, appearance and price when you shop for a bin, Shiner says. One he likes is the Earth Machine, a black plastic bin that looks a bit like Darth Vader’s helmet. Shiner likes it because it’s rodent-proof, durable and moderately priced at about $100.
Many plastic bins are flimsy, Shiner warns, so look for something that will last.
Another bin that Shiner likes is the C.E. Shepherd bin, an inexpensive but sturdy coated-wire bin made by a Houston company. The Shepherd bin sells for less than $100.
Rotary-drum models are the most convenient — simply turn the crank a few times to aerate — but tend to be pricier, usually in the $200-$300 range.
Something as simple and inexpensive as chicken wire lined with plastic will work, too.
Young woman: “I’m going to start worm composting in my kitchen.”
Young woman’s grandmother: “Oh, I won’t be able to visit you anymore.”
Worm composting, or vermiculture, is not for everyone. But for people who live in apartments, kitchen composting can be a way of participating in the “return-it-to-the-earth” movement. If they’re not weirded out by worms.
Gail Manning, an entomologist for the city of Fort Worth, Texas, has been teaching worm composting for years. There’s no odor, and the resultant compost — worm castings — is a clean, quick way to add nutrients to ground soil or potted plants, she says.
Kitchen compost worms are not the earthworms you see when you turn over soil, but a smaller species called red wigglers. They’re available at feed stores.
To build your little compost farm, begin by sprinkling a teaspoon of sand or coffee grounds in your bucket or other receptacle. Place the worms in the bucket, add food (vegetable peelings and fruit scraps), and top with a “bedding” of 2-3 inches of torn newspapers. You can mist the newspapers lightly. Add clean torn newspapers (don’t use a shredder) daily. And never stir a worm compost bin, Manning says.
Once a month, she says, remove the bedding and the worms and pull out the layer of “mud,” at the bottom. Let that dry, and then sprinkle it onto your flower pots or the soil in your yard.