Composting done the right way
If you have a yard or garden, you know that grass clippings, leaves, dead plants, tree branches and shrub trimmings can add up fast–especially in late summer. An alternative to having it hauled away is to turn all the organic waste into compost.
At first glance, a compost pile may look like a big pile of dead leaves, old plants and grass clippings. Inside, though, there’s a bit of backyard science taking place. Microorganisms are eating away at that pile of yard waste and turning it into compost. Compost is really a nutrient-rich soil amendment, much like a fertilizer, that helps vegetables, flowers, lawns and potted plants grow healthier and stronger.
The process of composting is a natural occurrence that happens all around us–it ‘s nature’s way of recycling organic material. When a leaf or tree limb falls in the woods, it eventually decays and turns to compost and acts as a natural fertilizer that encourages new growth. This process can takes years.
When you compost at home, you speed up the process. With a little planning, you can produce usable compost in as little as three weeks. And, despite what people think, a properly maintained compost system doesn’t create any unpleasant odors.
The first thing to know about composting is what can and can’t be composted. The simple answer is–any plant material that was once alive can be composted:
grass and lawn clippings
old fruits and vegetables
annual weeds before they seed
remains of garden plants
woodchips and sawdust
fruit and vegetable peels and scraps
Do not compost the following materials:
painted or chemically treated wood
annual weeds that have gone to seed
roots of perennial weeds
human and pet waste, including litter
While home composting is becoming more popular, a growing number of cities and municipalities are also realizing the benefits of composting. Many now operate large-scale composting facilities to help cut down on the growing amount of material going into landfills. The process is similar to a home composting system, but on a larger scale.
It takes about three to four months, a controlled combination of moisture, air, microorganisms and temperatures reaching up to 160 degrees F to turn yard waste into compost. Some of the finished compost is sold to landscaping companies, some is used in sanitary landfills and the rest is given away to gardeners.
On a smaller scale, starting your own home composting system is pretty easy. You can either buy a commercial composting bin or build one yourself. The choice really depends on how much material you have to recycle and how fast you want to make finished compost.
Freestanding compost piles are the simplest system. If you don’t have a lot of material and you’re not in a hurry, this is the one for you. Just start piling on the yard debris and food scraps and let nature do the rest. Be patient: this form of passive composting can take up to two years to make finished compost.
Enclosed one-bin systems make compost more quickly and require a little more maintenance. It’s a great way to get started with composting. You can buy several types of bins at nurseries, hardware stores, home improvement centers, garden catalogs or on the Internet:
A hoop-type composter is just a piece of plastic with lots of holes in it. Fill it with waste materials and mix, or turn, the contents every week or two with a pitchfork or shovel. You can have finished compost in 3 to 4 months.
A square plastic bin is a fancier unit with vents in the side for aeration and small openings for easy removal of the finished compost. These units cost anywhere from $150 to $200.
A compost tumbler is more user-friendly than a bin that sits on the ground. Fill it with waste materials and rather than turning it, just rotate the bin to mix and aerate. This system costs about $150 to $200 and creates compost in about 3 to 4 weeks.
If you don’t want to purchase a compost bin, you can make one out of wire, wood , concrete blocks or even a plastic garbage can with holes drilled into it.
Four wooden pallets can be used to contain a compost pile. To make turning the pile and removing the finished compost easier, hinge the front pallet so it swings open. A note: when using wood, avoid using treated lumber because it may contain toxic chemicals that could leach into the compost.
A wire bin is made by making a circle with garden stakes that measures 3 to 4 feet in diameter. Wrap wire fencing around the stakes, attaching it securely with cable ties.
A one-bin unit is great for making a single batch of compost every few months. If you have a lot of yard and garden waste and want to produce a steadier supply of compost throughout the growing season, a single bin probably won’t be enough. You may have to graduate to a multi-bin system to recycle the material that your yard produces.