As the green revolution unfolds more and more people are looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprint. One of the best ways that anyone can go green is with composting because absolutely everyone eats and food scraps are the number one ingredient in compost. Before we get started let's take a look at the basics.
Basics of Composting
Composting is "the purposeful biodegradation of organic matter, such as yard and food waste." Through millennia of practice, nature has been breaking down organic matter (anything once living) and reusing the nutrients that have been stored inside. There are different kinds of bacteria, molds, yeasts and fungi everywhere that aerobically (in the presence of oxygen) break down the matter producing heat, water vapor and carbon dioxide as they go. These lower organisms are then consumed by larger organisms (fruit flies, worms, other bugs) and up the food chain these nutrients go. Along the way, through waste products or "castings", a nutrient-rich humus is created that has an ideal consistency and composition for gardening.
Benefits of Composting
Compost is extremely versatile and beneficial in many ways. Because of its composition it has the unique ability to enrich soil physically, chemically and biologically. The act of composting itself has significant environmental and climate change impacts as well. Some of the major benefits of composting include:
Lowered Greenhouse Gas Emissions â€“ According to the US Composting Council the U.S. sent 25 million tons of food waste to landfills in 2005. The greenhouse gas impact of composting this mass would be the equivalent of removing 7.8 million cars from the road. This is because, in landfills, the organic matter gets compressed and breaks down anaerobically (because it lacks oxygen) and creates methane, which is a gas approximately 21 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.
Enriched soil ideal for growing â€“ compost itself is ideal for growing plants because it's loose enough to allow thorough root penetration but can still retain moisture needed for plant growth. However, it can also be worked in with otherwise undesirable soils such as clay or sand to make each type of soil better for plant growth.
Reduces the need for watering â€“ because compost can hold 100% of its weight in water, less watering is required and plants can survive longer during a drought.
Less or no need for fertilizer - compost supplies significant quantities of macro and micronutrients. Compost is a good source of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium which are the three most common nutrients used for fertilizer. Better yet, these nutrients are stored in stable forms of organic matter and are released slowly so you don't have to reapply. Compost also makes fertilizer that is applied more effective because it provides nutrients to assist in the uptake of the fertilizer.
Compost reduces soil-borne pathogens - research has shown that compost may suppress specific plant diseases such as pythium and fusarium.
How to Compost
The great thing about composting is that it can happen all by itself; however, natural decay is a very slow and smelly process. The good news is that with just a little bit of work, you can provide the optimal conditions to get a quick and thorough decay process going. Before you go throwing everything into the compost bin, let's take a look at what can and cannot be composted
What Can be Composted
Â· Fruit and Vegetable waste (includes scraps and rotting whole fruits/vegetables)
Â· Coffee grounds and filter
Â· Human and animal hair
Â· Yard trimmings and waste (grass clippings, old sticks broken down to less than 2 inches, leaves, straw, woodchips)
Â· Newspaper, wet paper, paperboard (such as cereal boxes and paper plates)
Â· Horse and Cow manure
What Cannot be Composted
Â· Animal byproducts such as meat scraps, bones, cheese or milk
Â· Pet Waste (could contain diseases)
Â· Mayonnaise, Peanut butter, Salad dressings (won't decay)
Â· Inorganic materials such as plastic or metal
Â· Chemicals (like motor oil, gasoline, pesticides, etc.)
Â· Human waste (could contain diseases)
Â· Pernicious weeds (they grow back in the compost)
The next step is to find a place you want to begin composting. While you can just throw your compost in an empty corner of your yard, you'll probably want to have a compost bin to put all of the waste into (if you have close neighbors you'll definitely want a compost bin). You can find plans to construct your own bin or you can purchase a compost bin. The compost needs to be aerated frequently to allow oxygen into the compost, so you'll want a compost bin design that either allows easy acces to toss the compost around manually or look for that feature incorporated into the compost bin (a lot of the commercial compost bins are tumblers that rotate the compost easily).
Each material you compost has a certain amount of carbon and nitrogen to provide to the compost. The ratio of carbon to nitrogen differs dramatically with each material. For this reason the compost materials have been categorized into two groups: Brown (mostly carbon) and Green (mostly nitrogen). In order to get the best results for composting you need a ratio of 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen.
Brown (carbon) materials are generally drier and provide the energy for the composting reactions. Brown materials include:
Â· Paper and Paperboard
Â· Coffee Grounds
Â· Tea Bags
Green (nitrogen) materials tend to be wetter and provide the necessary amino acids and proteins for the reaction to take place. Some green materials include:
Â· Fruit and Vegetable Waste
Â· Grass Clippings (very high in nitrogen, use sparingly)
Â· Fresh manure
Â· Plants and plant cuttings
To get the best composting results, start at the bottom layer with some twigs or brush or any other loose material. Keeping the bottom layer nice and loose will allow air to be drawn up through this layer which will keep the composting reaction going. Next, you'll want to add a layer of brown material followed by some good garden soil (not clay or sandy soil). On top of the soil add a layer of green material followed by an activator of some sort (commercial activator, alfalfa meal, high-protein dog food, bone or blood meal, fresh manure). Continue to add alternating layers of brown and green materials until the compost bin is full. Using this method will get the compost going and up to about 140F in 7-10 days. Once you reach 160F, the temperature will be high enough to sterilize any pathogens and kill and seeds that might be present. A compost thermometer is useful in determining the compost temperature.
Once the compost pile reaches its peak temperature, the oxygen will be consumed faster than it can be brought in. This will result in a drop in activity (and temperature) which will tell you that you should turn the pile to get more air into it.
Once you have an established compost pile, you can afford to slack off a little. You can turn the pile every time you add something or at least once a week to keep fresh air coming in. If you can keep the carbon to nitrogen ratio at 30:1 you'll be doing great, but if not the compost will still break down the fresh waste as it comes in.
An extremely active pile can produce compost in as little as 2-3 weeks but the average time is in the range of 2-4 months; it all depends on how well maintained the compost is. For this reason it may be beneficial to buy or build a second compost bin, so that you can add waste to your operating bin while the first compost bin is maturing.
While this may seem like a lot of information, just remember that nature breaks everything down naturally. To help this process we try to provide the optimum conditions with a carbon to nitrogen ratio of 30:1 and oxygen and moisture to sustain the composting process. With even just a little bit of love and attention you can create great compost.