Compost Basics

What is Composting?

Composting is a natural process that changes organic matter such as leaves, grass and food scraps into humus.  Humus is a dark, rich and crumbly substance that is an excellent soil conditioner.

The Advantages:

Adding compost improves the quality of soil and increases water retention. The result is healthier plants requiring less water and fertilizer. If you have a garden, lawn, trees, shrubs or even planter boxes, you have a use for compost.

Composting also benefits the environment and the community by removing yard waste from our waste stream.

Composting Styles:

The simplest way to compost is to place organic materials together in a pile, but some find that a compost bin provides an easy way to contain your compost pile.

You can make your own bin with chicken wire, snow fencing or wood pallets.  Ready-made compost bins are also available commercially.   The size of your compost bin can vary.  For most people, a four-foot long by four-foot wide by three-foot high bin will serve.

You can also make compost in leaf and lawn bags by filling the bags with leaves and grass or other “green” material. Add two-thirds gallon of water, a handful of fertilizer and a shovel of top soil. Mix well. Put two or three small holes in the bottom. You will have humus by spring.

The Process:

Place your compost pile or bin in a convenient location protected from overexposure to wind and direct sunlight.  Add grass, leaves and organic materials as they collect.  Add microbes to assist in the decay process by layering with top soil.  Wet each layer well.  Try to maintain a 3 to 1 ratio of browns (leaves, dried plants, coffee grounds, etc.) to greens (grass, food scraps, manure, etc.).

Composting speeds natural decomposition by microbes feeding on organic materials to churn out humus.  As microbes work, their activity causes temperatures within a compost pile to rise to 120°F -160°F, accelerating the decomposition process and killing many disease-causing organisms and weed seeds.

Turn your compost at least monthly.  Turning provides ventilation and shifts the materials from the outer edges of the pile to the center, where they are heated and broken down.  Wet the pile regularly, but not to the point of soaking. This method can produce usable compost in about six months.  You can turn your compost pile more often to speed the process.

A quicker system calls for more turning and two or more adjacent bins.  Shift the compost from one bin to another. This method produces usable compost in just a few months. When the material is uniform in color and texture and crumbly to the touch, you are ready to start gardening with your home-made compost.

Using the End Product:

Compost can be mixed thoroughly into the soil of vegetable gardens and flower beds before planting or used as mulch spread over the surface of soil to suppress weed growth.

Composting Hints to Remember:

When composting food waste, use such foods as fruit and vegetable scraps, eggshells and coffee grounds, but avoid meat and dairy products.  Meat and dairy products can harbor some unhealthy bacteria and can attract unwanted animal attention to your compost pile.

You can speed up composting by shredding or chopping materials to be composted.

Covering the compost pile with a tarp helps retain moisture and heat during winter months. This also protects the pile from becoming too wet when it rains.

Turning or mixing is not recommended in cold weather because it allows too much heat to escape.

A properly-heated compost pile has no odor. If you detect ammonia or any other offensive odor, turn the pile immediately.

Allow enough time for the organic materials to decay into a dark, crumbly substance. Compost that is not fully decomposed may cause nitrogen starvation when used on plants.