Compost is organic matter processed into a soil-like material that is rich in nutrients. It is a natural way of recycling waste with the help of micro-organisms or other animals like worms or insects. With an increased interest in sustainable and green living, more people are reaping the benefits of this earth-friendly practice.
Why we should compost
Composting is beneficial for a number of reasons. It turns kitchen and yard scraps into useful material that can nourish soil, keep the air clean, improve plant resistance to disease and pests, and decrease the amount of debris in our overflowing waste yards. Compost makes an excellent fertilizer for plants, vegetables and fruit trees and can replace synthetic fertilizer.
The brown-green balance
Besides air and water, carbon and potassium are necessary for making composting a success. Carbon-rich materials are considered brown; potassium-rich waste is green.
- Browns: Dry leaves, wood chips and shavings, paper, cardboard, sawdust.
- Greens: Fruit and vegetable peels, coffee grounds, egg shells, tea leaves, grass clippings.
A 30:1 ratio of carbon to potassium is ideal, which can be achieved by alternating layers of brown and green in equal volume. That’s because the browns are dry while the greens contain lots of water.
Choose the composting method right for you
There are many methods of composting, and finding the right one for you will ensure that your compost project is successful. You don’t have to have a large yard to reap the benefits of composting — you just have to choose the right method.
1. Composting in pits
Those who have some land can compost the old-fashioned way in large pits or ditches. The yard wastes as well as kitchen wastes go into the pits. If there are farm animals like horses, manure also enriches the mix.
After several layers of waste materials, soil is added. The layers are repeated and the materials are kept moist to facilitate microbial growth. It is occasionally turned with a rake to maintain good aeration. It may take up to a year to complete the process.
2. Composting piles
Composting above the ground saves you a lot of digging. It can be done in open piles where all the waste materials are simply piled up and kept moist till they disintegrate. A better option is to have an enclosed pile.
The enclosure, ideally 3×3 feet, can be made of wooden slats or wire mesh fixed to wooden frame. Fall is the ideal time to start because of all the fallen leaves which would provide the carbon for the composting system. Line it with leaves; add kitchen waste on top. Build up the layers. Turn every week and add moisture, if necessary. Adding some soil or compost in between will also help. Compost is ready in several months.
3. Composting in bins
Those with smaller yards cannot possibly have pits or piles. Bins are ideal for them. Plastic bins are available in different shapes and sizes. Bins without a bottom can have the benefit of involving soil organisms in the composting process. They will have better aeration, too. But you cannot move them at will. If there are no openings at the base, you may place some soil or compost inside the bin to introduce microbes.
What can go into the composting bin?
Garden waste like leaves, grass clippings and weeds can go into the bin. Among kitchen waste, vegetable and fruit peels, coffee grinds, egg shells and tea leaves are welcome. Fish and meat waste, oily food waste and dairy should not be put in the bin. If you have vegetarian pets, their droppings can go in, but not cat and dog poop, as they may harbor harmful germs and parasites. Maintain brown-green ratio by adding paper waste.
4. Rotating bins
Rotating bins are meant for turning the compost without having to use muscle power. They typically have a drum with a screwed on, or locked down, lid. Hold a few feet above the ground by a frame; they can be easily turned by hand. Rotating bins make aerobic composting easy, and frequent turning will accelerate the process.
Where to place the bin
Whatever the size and design of your bin, you may not think it dainty enough to allocate prime real estate. Bins are ideally placed where you have easy access. A sunny location is preferred because the additional heat will speed up the disintegration of the waste.
If the bin has open base, it should be placed directly on the ground to take maximum advantage of the soil organisms that help composting. Keeping the bin raised on a piece of wire mesh spread over a depression in the ground will promote ventilation.
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If you must place the bin on paved or cemented surfaces, it is better to keep it on a raised bed of soil. It will prevent the surface below and around the bin from being ruined by the leachate from the bin as the soil will absorb it. You can even plant something around the bin to utilize the nutrient rich ‘juice’ from the bin.
Compost collection and usage
Compost can be removed from the bottom of the bin; some containers have a side opening for easy collection. Well cured, earthy-smelling compost can be applied directly to garden beds and pots.
How compost helps plants
Compost is a welcome addition to any soil. It functions in different ways to enhance soil fertility.
- A soil conditioner. Compost is a soil conditioner; it maintains the soil pH in the range 6.5 to 7.5, which is ideal for most plants.
- It aerates the soil. The macro granules in compost resist compaction and caking of the soil. Increased air spaces promote the growth of beneficial aerobic bacteria in the soil.
- Modulates the water retention capacity of the soil. Compost absorbs moisture, but at the same time it allows for the drainage of excess water. In clay soils it improves drainage, while it prevents sandy soils from drying out too fast.
- Provides nutrients to plants. Compost is rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, the three macronutrients necessary for healthy plant growth. Besides, the microbial activity that produces compost also generates essential micronutrients that many soils are deficient in.
Other types of composting
We have discussed aerobic composting until now. The decomposition is carried out by aerobic bacteria that thrive in oxygen-rich environment. Other ways to compost include anaerobic composting and worm composting.
Anaerobic bacteria, which break down organic matter without the help of oxygen, can also be used for composting. This form of composting generates pungent odors that may not be suitable for home and small yard environments.
Bokashi is a Japanese method of anaerobic composting in which a special microbial culture works on the garbage in a sealed bin, effectively removing unpleasant odors. The treated waste is later buried in the ground to complete the process.
Worms which naturally occur in garbage piles are used for turning the organic wastes into compost. Red wrigglers are preferred for the job and can turn a load of kitchen scraps into useable compost in very little time. Setting up a vermicomposting project requires just a few supplies including a bin, some newspaper and some hungry worms. Vermicomposting can be done indoors too, which makes it a great option for apartment dwellers.
Since there are so many different types of composting available, it should not be hard to find one to suit your space, time and budget. Taking the time to recycle kitchen and yard scraps is an admirable and effective way to start reducing your carbon footprint today.