Dos and Don’ts of Composting in Your Backyard
On average, American adults generate 210 million tons of solid waste trash each year. Approximately 27% (or 56 million tons) is recovered through recycling, while the rest is placed in landfills to decompose and rot. When organic solid waste decomposes, it releases harmful greenhouse gases into the air, which can produce a number of harmful effects on the environment.
Composting offers an excellent method of transforming your household’s organic waste into a valuable additive for your garden’s soil.
Whether you have a green thumb or a talent for killing plastic plants, composting is easy to learn and will enhance whatever plants you are attempting to grow.
Mature compost is a free fertilizer for your garden, and it won’t burn your plants like chemical fertilizers can. When you add compost to the soil, you are improving its overall texture and enabling it to drain water more efficiently.
Before you begin composting, it’s important to know what you should and shouldn’t compost.
The basics of what you can and can’t compost are fairly straightforward. Various forms of organic matter are generally able to be used as compost and inorganic matter like plastics, styrofoam, and metals cannot.
To create a healthy compost bin, it is recommended that you have a ratio of nitrogen-rich “green” materials and carbon-rich “brown” materials. The exact ratio varies depending on the source, but it is generally considered to be 25 parts carbon (brown) to one part nitrogen (green).
Green materials include the wet, nitrogen-rich fresh plant matter and plate scrapings of your home. Nitrogen is an important protein source for the microbes in the compost and helps to speed up the decomposition process. If using food, it’s best to use uncooked varieties as the oils used during cooking may slow down the decomposition process.
Brown materials include the dry, carbon-rich substances from woody plants or paper and cardboard packaging. The most effective way to introduce these materials into your compost bin is to shred or otherwise cut the material down so that it naturally breaks down more quickly in the bin. Carbon is used as an energy source for the compost microbes to do their work and carbon materials will comprise the bulk of your compost matter.
- Vegetable and fruit scraps
- Tea bags and tea leaves
- Food scrapings. Avoid using meat and bones as they can contain harmful bacteria that can slow down the decomposition process and attract pests
- Coffee grounds
- Yard debris (e.g. grass, leaves, plant trimmings)
- Nuts and shells
- Shredded pine needles
- Small amounts of wood ash
- Dried leaves
- Shredded newspaper, toilet paper rolls, and paper towels
- Dryer and vacuum lint
- Animal fur and hair
- Straw, wood chips, and sawdust
- Dairy products
- Grease, lard, fat, and oil
- Fish and meat scraps
- Plants that have been treated with commercial pesticides
- Kitty litter
Do choose a composting bin or tumbler that will meet your needs. Composting tumbler will hasten the composting process, but composting bins are more affordable.
Don’t start your new compost pile with too few materials. The more organic waste you have to add to your compost pile, the faster your compost pile will mature. There will be more bacteria present to breakdown the materials you add to it.
Don't add too many wet materials. Be careful not to add too many “wet” materials, like vegetable and fruit trimmings, to your compost pile, or it will start to stink. Alternately, if you have too many “dry” materials, like shredded paper or fallen leaves, it will take the pile much longer to decompose. A pile with an equal ratio of both elements will decompose the quickest and most efficiently.
Do keep your compost pile moist. This is especially important in the hot summer months. The bacteria that break down organic waste require moisture to keep working efficiently.
Don’t forget to rotate your compost every so often. If you have a compost tumbler, you’ll need to rotate the drum 2 to 4 times every 3 or 4 days. If you have a compost bin, you’ll need to use a shovel or pitchfork to mix the contents once a week or so. This provides the compost pile with more oxygen and spreads the bacteria around.
Consider a compost activator. To get the composting process started, you can give your new compost heap a jump start. There are compost activators that can be purchased at local gardening and home improvement stores, but if you would prefer not to spend the money, simply adding a few shovelfuls of organic, enzyme-rich garden soil into the pile will work.
The recommended location for a compost pile is in your backyard; however, if live in an apartment or do not have enough room in your backyard, then it is possible to use a compost tumbler and keep the compost in your garage, a shed, or even your basement.
If you do decide to put your compost pile in your backyard, make sure to find a shady, dry spot that is located near a water source.
Once you’ve found the perfect spot, you’re ready to begin adding waste to your new pile.
Ideally, your compost pile should be an even mixture of green and brown materials. Green materials are rich in nitrogen, while brown materials are high in carbon. Both will be needed to effectively compost.
Groups of each color should be layered. A brown layer laid on top of a green layer will mask the smell of the green materials, which is help in keeping away flies and other insects. Dry materials should be moistened when they are added to your compost pile.
If your compost pile is not placed inside of a covered bin, make sure to cover it with a tarp.
Do have patience. Depending on the type of container it is kept in, the climate, and other factors, it can take a pile of composting materials between two months and two years to mature. You might wish to consider adding worms to your compost pile to speed the process along.
Compost requires attention and maintenance. Your compost will be ready to add to your garden once it has become a rich dark brown color.
Don’t use compost as a replacement for fertilizer. Finally, compost should not be used as a replacement for plant fertilizer. Rather, it should be used as a complement to it.
The nutrients that compost releases are often too slow to add all of the nutrients plants require for growth. Instead, view compost as a soil additive that will improve the chemical, physical, and biological properties of your garden’s soil.