What is Composting?
Composting is a practical method of turning leaves, grass, and other organic materials into a valuable resource. Composting is the oldest way to recycle. It is a natural process that changes organic matter into a dark, rich and crumbly substance called humus. Humus is an excellent soil conditioner.
Gardeners have always appreciated the benefits of using nutrient-rich compost. 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 speeds natural decomposition. Microbes feed on organic materials and churn out humus--a process requiring moisture and oxygen. 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 organisms and weed seeds.
Your Own Backyard Project
Any time of year is the right time to begin a compost pile, but some people prefer autumn with its abundance of leaves. The simplest way to compost is to place organic materials together in a pile. A compost bin will provide an easy way to contain your compost pile. 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.
Types of Compost Bins Available
You can make your own bin with chicken wire, snow fencing or wood pallets. Ready-made compost bins are available commercially.
Place your compost bin in a convenient location protected from overexposure to wind and direct sunlight. Add grass, leaves and organic materials as they collect. You need microbes to assist in the decay process. They can be added 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, manure, etc.).
Turn the pile 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 thoroughly, 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.
Two Bin System
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.
Composting Hints to Remember
If you want to make compost quickly, add other natural materials to your leaves. Good additions are fresh grass and green plant materials, nitrogen-containing fertilizers and farm manure. You can also compost food waste such as fruit and vegetable scraps, eggshells, coffee grounds, and other non-meat or non-fat products.
Check with your municipality for any ordinances pertaining to the composting of food waste. 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 bin can be quickly made by putting three or four pallets (skids) together. Snow fencing or chicken wire will also keep compost piles tidy.
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.
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.
The benefits of composting are numerous.
Mix compost thoroughly into the soil of vegetable gardens and flower beds before planting.
Compost may be used as a mulch, spread over the surface of soil to suppress weed growth. Do not pile green grass clippings around your plants.
Grass clippings left on the lawn can actually help maintain a vigorous, more durable lawn. You can safely leave clippings on your lawn so long as they are not excessively long or weedy.