Using compost in yards and gardens is a sustainable way to fertilize plants, create habitat, and improve soil quality. But what is compost and how is it used in the garden? Simply put, compost is a mixture of yard and food waste that breaks down efficiently through controlled decomposition and is added to the soil as an organic fertilizer. Composting is an all-natural way to improve your soil with the help of microbial communities like fungi and bacteria. In this article, Savana will show you how to start a compost pile.
Starting Your Compost
In nature, materials such as leaves and twigs fall to the ground and are consumed by bacteria, fungi, algae and insects. With composting, you hack this natural process and make it more efficient so your organic "waste" can be recycled. Depending on climatic conditions, such as heat and humidity, this process can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months. When done right, compost generates heat during the decomposition process, which can get hot enough to kill unwanted pests and even help break down leftover chemicals!
Understanding Aerobic and Anaerobic Decomposition
Starting a compost bin or compost pile is an easy process, but it does require some input to keep it running. There are two types of decomposition: aerobic decomposition and anaerobic decomposition. Aerobic decomposition requires airflow and is critical to the microenvironment you wish to create in your compost bin or pile. Anaerobic decomposition, on the other hand, results in a slower, smellier process that will inevitably draw unwanted attention from pests and neighbors alike! To keep your compost pile healthy, you can achieve airflow by turning the organics regularly or by layering.
Deciding Between a Compost Pile and a Compost Bin
Starting compost production at home can take one of two forms: a compost pile or a compost bin. The difference between the two has to do with your personal preference, experience, and the amount of space you have available for composting. The easiest and most economical way to compost at home, a compost pile is nothing more than a pile of rubble placed in an out-of-the-way spot in your yard. Alternatively (preferably), the piles can be contained within a wire or wood structure.
If you're a beginner interested in composting food scraps from the kitchen and small amounts of yard waste, a compost bin and tumbler are a better option. Often made of lightweight plastic, these containers are specifically designed to promote air flow, drain water, and keep out unwanted pests. The trash can and tumbler are also designed to be visually appealing and can be placed anywhere in the yard.
Knowing What Can and Can't Be Composted
All organic matter will eventually decompose, but when it comes to compost bins, careful handling is recommended. Compost should be a mix of leafy greens, moist "greens" such as leaves, fruits, vegetables, and grass clippings, and "browns" such as dry leaves, twigs, sawdust, and paper. The goal is to keep a brown to green ratio of about 3:1.
You can also add kitchen and household waste to your compost, but avoid adding meat, fat, oil, and cat or dog waste. Vegetable scraps, eggshells, fruit, newspaper, and disease-free houseplant leaves are all important components of a compost bin. A great way to store and divert kitchen and other household waste to the compost bin is to use a compost bucket. Keep the bucket under the sink and periodically empty the contents into the compost bin to avoid attracting fruit flies and other pests.
In addition to "feeding" your composter with organic waste, you can add handfuls of garden soil to add beneficial bacteria, fungi, and essential nutrients to your compost for faster, more complete breakdown.
Now that you know how to start a compost pile, how do you maintain it? Depending on climate and other environmental conditions, compost can be ready for use in the garden within three weeks, and it can take four months or more. Warm weather and humidity increase the process, while cool weather and dry conditions slow it down.
When ready, the compost should be dark brown to black and crumble in your hands. Healthy compost has a fresh aroma similar to the "after the rain" smell. Muddy or slimy compost with a rancid smell is a sign the mix is becoming anaerobic and more brown (dried leaves, sawdust, cardboard, paper) should be added to help restore balance. Conversely, if the compost is overly dry and doesn't seem to be breaking down, adding more greens (leaves, fruits, vegetables, grass clippings) will increase the moisture content and create a better environment for compost microorganisms.
Unhealthy or excessively slow compost can lead to an increase in pests. Mice, raccoons, and other animals are especially fond of seeds and food scraps that may be in the compost. To deter hungry mouths, use properly sealed compost bins and tumblers to allow for air exchange while minimizing the area for even the smallest unwanted guests to enter.
Once the compost is ready to use in the garden, you can spread it evenly over the soil surface, or turn it over. Compost provides natural, low-dose nutrients to plants and increases soil vitality by adding beneficial fungi and bacteria. Many compost bins and tumblers have a spigot to collect the "compost tea". You can add this water-based mixture directly to the garden, or mix it with water before handing it out.
Composting at home is a great way to make your life more sustainable and a great way to learn about the importance of nutrient cycling.