Composting 101

Got a compost pile? If you don’t, now’s the perfect time to start one in celebration of Earth Day on Sunday. To be clear, compost is organic matter that has been decomposed and recycled as a fertilizer or soil additive. Creating your own compost simply requires making a heap of wetted organic matter (leaves, food waste) and waiting several weeks for the materials to break down. If you have a yard or a spot for composting, you can easily do this. Here’s how to get started:

  • Jumpstart a new compost pile with aged manure, cottonseed meal, alfalfa meal, blood meal or compost starter. They’re rich in nitrogen and help activate the microbes necessary for breaking down organic matter into compost.
  • Anything that was living at one time is great for compost piles. Think of leaves, vegetables and grass clippings. Avoid anything that’s been chemically treated.
  • The microbes responsible for breaking down your compost pile need a balanced diet of nitrogen and carbon. Nitrogen comes from green materials, like food scraps and grass clippings. Carbon comes from brown materials such as dead leaves, hay and wood chips. You can add to your pile as often as you want, but keep a ratio of equal portions by weight.
  • Compost piles should be damp but not too wet—think of a wrung-out sponge. As you build your compost pile, make sure that each layer is moist as it is added. The surface should also remain damp.
  • For faster composting, keep your pile or compost bin in direct sun and use a compost turner every two weeks to aerate your pile. Be sure to keep it damp though—the sun can dry it out if you’re not careful.
  • Depending on how carefully you manage your pile, composting can take from 1 month to 2 years. A pile turned every week or so and carefully managed may compost in a month or two. A pile not turned or managed will take about six months to two years to fully compost.

Caution—do not compost fats, pet droppings or animal products. They will attract pests to the pile and can spread disease.

So, how do you know when it’s “done?” Compost should be dark and crumbly with none of the starting ingredients visible. Finished compost can be applied around the base of trees and shrubs to serve as mulch or worked into the soil in a garden to provide valuable nutrients.


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