A Deep Dive Into Compost

Composting is embracing your place in the natural order by utilizing your waste to improve the soil and lower your impact on the environment. I know it sounds dramatic, but it is true. Simply, composting is when you take the organic materials that you would normally throw away and help them decompose to create a soil additive that is great for plants. 

 Saving money is a common motivator for getting started. You don’t have to spend on soil amendments for your garden or lawn. It increases the soil’s water retention, thereby saving you water and keeping your plants from dying. It is free mulch and when mixed with sand and topsoil, makes a decent potting soil. 

Maintaining a healthy compost system makes a big impact on the environment. It helps with soil erosion and conserving water. With a large percent of your trash becoming plant food for your garden, you are dramatically decreasing the amount of garbage going to landfills.  Also, by utilizing an aerobic system to break down your waste products, you are decreasing the amount of methane emissions. 

How?

Composting can be as simple or complex as you want to make it. Everything decomposes eventually ( I know, a cheerful thought) no matter what you do or how many mistakes you make. Some people are very meticulous, taking temperatures and testing the ph and mineral content at regular intervals. Some people get fancy with the containers and tools. 

Conversely, some people don’t spend any money and some people pay very little attention to their heap. Just throw a bunch of stuff into a pile and go on with their day. And you know what? At some point they all wind up with some pretty decent compost. 

How it works is you layer “browns” (paper products and  brown plant material like leaves and sticks), “greens” (food waste and green plant material), and “activators” (finished compost or soil). Like a really gross cake that the worms are going to love.  I always make sure that a layer of browns is on top to cover the food scraps that pests might be drawn to. Then, water the pile. The material in there should always be damp enough that it has the texture of a wet sponge. Not too much, though. Too much water and it becomes anaerobic. Anaerobic decomposition smells terrible, takes much longer to break down and is not the best for the environment.

Every few days (at least once a week) turn the pile by using a pitchfork or shovel and mixing all of the material so that the bottom and center of it gets good aeration. After there are no more food scraps in there and it stops heating up, your compost is ready to be used! It should smell earthy and have a crumbly texture.

Photo by Eva Bronzini: https://www.pexels.com/photo/vegetables-on-the-soil-5503338/

Containment Styles

The easiest containment style is the pile or hole in the ground. You need to throw this stuff somewhere that pets won’t get into it, so find a spot in the yard or a hole in the ground and you’re good to go. Just making a pile on the ground is easier in the way of initial setup, but it is slightly more annoying to keep the material contained in the pile. As it builds up, things start to sort of roll out and it can spread if you aren’t careful. That being said, just tilling up the site a little bit with a garden hoe or rake is all of the preparation you need. 

The second easiest to set up is the container method. How much organic material your household produces is the main deciding factor when it comes to how big of a container you will need. If you have a family of four with a garden and chickens (like me) you will generate a lot of refuse. So a larger container like a barrel or a trash can is ideal. I used the biggest plastic tote I had because it was free and immediately available. 

If it is just you and you don’t have livestock, a five gallon bucket or tote will work just fine. Or you could buy one of the bins that they have available on the market just for composting. It depends on how much you want to spend. 

For hot composting, it is recommended that your pile or box be three feet all of the way around. That way everything heats up and to a high enough temperature to kill off any pathogens. Again, recommended but not required.

If you go the reusing route and use a tote, barrel, bucket, ect… you have to modify it a little. To make sure the compost gets enough airflow, take a drill with a big drill bit and make holes in all of the sides. This includes the lid and bottom. The more holes, the more airflow. Set the container on top of some gravel, brick, rocks, ect… to keep it from retaining too much water in the bottom. 

The set up that isn’t necessarily the easiest is to build the container. You can make a container out of pallets, chicken wire, bricks, lumber, ect… Some people make them square, some prefer to make them round, it really just doesn’t matter. Go with whatever you like. There are lots of plans and illustrations out there on how to make these.

Carbon

Photo by Jon Moore on Unsplash

The ingredient that is going to make up the bulk of the compost recipe is carbon (“browns”). Carbon acts as food for the decomposers and the decomposers do all of the composting work. 

Examples of good carbon sources are cardboard, paper, sticks, brown leaves, and dry grass or straw. Make sure the paper isn’t shiny (like magazines) because that film prevents it from breaking down like it should. Also, remove all tape or staples. Paper products break down faster if you shred them or tear them into smaller pieces.

Nitrogen

Photo by Denise Nys: https://www.pexels.com/photo/compost-bucket-01b-14824327/

The really nutrient dense part of the recipe is nitrogen (“greens”). This is what feeds your plants once the compost has cured. Examples are food scraps, eggshells, coffee grounds, green plant material, ect… 

Nitrogen is very important for plant and soil health. Well, for all life on this planet. Unfortunately, it is also the hardest to keep contained. It can turn into a gas so that it just floats away if there’s no mulch to stop it. Leaching and erosion also rob the soil of this vital element.

Activators

Activators are kind of considered optional additives for compost. They introduce beneficial microorganisms to help break down the materials. Good examples of natural activators are manure (like from chickens, horses, ect… NOT dogs or cats!!), sourdough starter, blood meal, soil, finished compost, you get it. Also, they sell “compost accelerators” at garden and hardware stores. I haven’t tried them, but I am sure they will work too.

What NOT to Compost

  • any kind of lipids (fats or oils)
  • dairy products
  • meat or bones or any other animal product that might draw scavengers
  •  pet waste
  • treated lumber or charcoal briquette ash
  • plastic, shiny paper, or any inorganic material that will kill microbes or otherwise not break down.

What to do with it

So you have finished compost. Now what? As I said earlier, the finished product is an awesome soil additive. By itself, it doesn’t contain enough texture and nutrients to keep plants alive. It’s like planting into straight fertilizer. Not good. 

But, when you mix it with sand and topsoil it makes a great growing medium. Throw it into your garden beds or spread it into your lawn at the beginning of winter and you will have really nutrient dense soil for your next growing season. You can also use it as a mulch, just be sure to leave a few inches away from your plants.

Just like any hobby that involves nature, composting is both an art and a science. It helps to understand the biology and chemistry that is going on, but it is not required. No matter what you do, organic matter is going to decay. As you go along, you learn what works for you and have fun figuring out how to get different results.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Sources

These are the sources I read when I researched this article. I highly recommend you read them because they had a wealth of useful information and far more than I could fit in here.

Campbell, Stu. Let It Rot!. Revised by Kathleen Bond Borie, Storey Communications, Inc., 1975,1990.

EPA. “Composting At Home”. EPA, https://www.epa.gov/recycle/composting-home#:~:text=for%20Home%20Composting-,What%20is%20Composting%3F,crumbly%2C%20earthy%2Dsmelling%20material. 22 Nov. 2022. Accessed 27 May 2023.

DHEC. “Composting- Simple Steps for Starting at Home”. Scdhec.gov, https://scdhec.gov/sites/default/files/Library/OR-1705.pdf. Accessed 27 May 2023.

Hu, Shelia. “Composting 101”. NRDC, 20 July 2020. https://www.nrdc.org/stories/composting-101#whatis. Accessed 27 May 2023.

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