Composting at Home

Composting Diagram
What is Compost?
Home composting is an effective way to create mineral-rich soil naturally and without spending a cent. Finished compost is a wonderful soil amendment that improves the texture of the soil and adds important micro-nutrients. Compost retains nutrients from decaying material in a form that is easily absorbed by plants. Soil created by composting retains moisture at a much higher rate too. Leaves, grass clippings and food scraps are suitable for composting. You know how wonderful a forest smells? That aroma of dense, healthy, thriving plants? That’s naturally occurring compost. Compost is rich, dark, great-smelling, crumbly and soil-like. You can start a compost pile with leaves and trimmings from your yard. Food scraps from your kitchen is an ideal addition to your compost pile. Meats, fish and poultry take a longer time to break down in your compost pile and attracts animals if not cared for properly. Include these only minimally.
How it works...
What’s the science of it all? How does a load of yard trimmings and food scraps transform into a marvelous soil amendment rich in nutrients with the ability to retain moisture? Easy.

A good compost pile needs air, heat and moisture. If placed on soil, compost piles attract all the right inhabitants (worms and other microorganisms). Bacteria are vital agents in decomposition, and it’s bacteria that cause compost to get hot (in fact, in cooler months, you may even notice steam). That’s because the bacteria are on a feeding frenzy, and the faster they eat, the more heat they generate. Hot compost is a very good sign that great things are happening in there.
Composting Methods
A compost pile is easy to make and doesn’t require much space. In order to reach optimal temperatures, the pile should be at least 3 feet wide, 3 feet across, and 3 feet tall (one cubic yard). That is the minimum size to generate temperatures that can kill weeds and pathogens, but smaller compost piles will also work with reduced efficiency.

To build a compost pile, start by clearing off a patch of ground. Choose a spot that’s away from trees or fast growing vines – the roots from these plants can infiltrate the compost pile and suck away nutrients. Then, line the ground with groundcloth or plastic liner to protect against root intrusion. If there are moles, groundhogs, or other burrowing animals in your area, you may want to put a layer of chicken coop wire or hardware cloth too. Avoid putting the compost pile against a wooden fence or deck – the compost can stain wood and may encourage rotting.

After you pick out the perfect spot, start adding the organic matter. There are certain things that you should NOT put in your compost pile. Break these components into very small pieces, so they decompose faster. Use your piles of organic material to create alternating layers of brown and green waste.

Keep building your compost pile until you run out of materials. Each layer can be as thick or as thin as you’d like to make it. The best way is to use thin layers of green material (2-4 inches) and thicker layers of brown materials (5-7 inches).

The final step is waiting. Let nature take its course, and before you know it, you’ll have a pile of rich, black gold (no, not the kind that you can put in your gas tank, but the kind of natural fertilizer that plants thrive on). Finished compost has a carbon to nitrogen ratio of about 15:1. The resulting material is coarse, crumbly, and spongy – a perfect mulch for absorbing water and gradually releasing nutrients into the soil.
Vermicomposting, or worm composting, is different than traditional composting.

Worm composting is a process that uses red earthworms, also commonly called redworms, to consume organic waste, producing castings (an odor-free compost product for use as mulch), soil conditioner, and topsoil additive. Naturally occurring organisms, such as bacteria and millipedes, also assist in the aerobic degradation of the organic material. Commercially available worm composting bins make it fairly simple to do your own vermicomposting indoors.

Vermicomposting is especially useful for processing food scraps, since the worms consume the material quickly and there are fewer problems with odor. Worm composting does not generate temperatures high enough to kill pathogens. For this reason, vermicomposting is more appropriate for food, paper, and yard waste.

Food scraps should be chopped or shredded for faster degradation. Unprocessed materials can be used in vermicomposting, but the time required for complete degradation of the organic waste is generally six months or longer. Vermicomposting does not require a specific carbon-to-nitrogen ratio like traditional aerobic composting methods.

What you'll need:

WORMS: You'll need 1,000 worms (1 lb) to start a worm box, maybe twice that if you want to process your garden wastes too -- they breed very fast in the right conditions, but starting with more will give the system a good start.

BEDDING: Fill the box with moist bedding for the worms to burrow in and to bury the food scraps in. You need about 6 lb (dry weight) for a 2ft x 2ft x 8" box. Worms will eat the bedding as well as the food scraps, so you'll need to top it up in a few months.  Any inert, non-toxic, fluffy material that holds moisture and allows air to circulate will do for bedding. Don't use anything that will decompose too rapidly when you moisten it and get hot. Cardboard cartons (corrugated), or shredded newspaper work best. Tear it into 1" strips. Black ink is non-toxic, avoid glossy paper. Once it's all suitably shredded, mixed and moist, put it in the box and add the worms (about 1lb -- 1,000 worms). Leave it for two or three days to let the worms settle in before adding wastes.

FEEDING: No metal, foil, or plastic. Use vegetable and fruit scraps, coffee grounds (including paper filters), tea bags (remove the staple), eggshells (best dried and crushed first, then sprinkled over the surface), stale bread, houseplant trimmings. Chop up big chunks. Try to avoid citrus, and also onion and garlic.

You'll be surprised how much feed you can put in that box -- the worms and micro-organisms reduce it more than you'd think possible.

The box will need emptying every 3-6 months.

Best tool for burying feed: a three-pronged hand-cultivator (hand-fork).

Information courtesy of Journey to Forever at http://journeytoforever.org
1. Yard trimmings and food scraps make up 30% or more of the waste stream. Composting your kitchen food scraps and yard trimmings helps divert that waste from the landfill, waterways and water treatment facilities.

2. Healthy plants from healthy soil look better, produce better and have a much greater ability to fight off pests and diseases reducing your need for pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.

3. Adding organic materials to the soil improves moisture retention.

4. Adding decomposed organic material to the soil feeds beneficial organisms.

5. Compost amends both sandy and clay soils.

6. Compost provides a balanced, slow–release source of nutrients that helps the soil hold nutrients long enough for plants to use them.

7. Composting saves money–you avoid the cost of buying soil conditioners, bagged manure etc.

8. Feeding your plants well will improve your own diet. Plants grown in depleted soils have a reduced nutrient content.

9. Home composting is a valuable tool in educating children about nature and the cycle of life.

10. Soil from compost just looks better!
Tips for Better Composting
1. Don’t throw away your kitchen scraps — add them to the compost pile. Kitchen scraps are typically high in nitrogen, which helps heat up the compost pile and speed up the composting process. Egg shells, coffee grounds, fruit and vegetable peels and scraps are all outstanding materials to add.

2. If you’re composting with a compost pile, bigger is often better. Heat builds up with a big pile. You don’t want to get much bigger than about 3 feet by 3 feet though.

3. Keep your compost aerated! If you are composting with a tumbling composter, make sure you turn it whenever you add new materials. If you are composting with a pile, or in a static (non-tumbling) compost bin, be sure to mix up the contents so that the pile gets oxygen and can break down effectively. Use a compost aerating tool like this one.

4. Don’t let the compost completely dry out. A compost pile needs moisture to keep the composting process active.

5. Don’t keep your compost too wet so that it gets soggy and starts to stink. Just as too dry is bad, too wet is also something that you should avoid.

6. Too much of any one material will slow down the composting process. If you have all leaves, all grass clippings or an overload of any other single type of material, it can throw off the balance of the pile. In general, it’s good to keep a mix of green and brown material (see main page for more details on this).