If you’ve ever grown a garden, or even talked to someone who has, you’ve probably heard of compost. But what IS it? Compost is partially decomposed organic matter, rich in nutrients that plants and soil thrive on. Nature makes its own compost every day, with dropped leaves and fruits, and dead plants and animals. But if you live in the suburbs and keep a nice, groomed lawn or garden, this process doesn’t happen–simply because the yard regularly gets tidied up.
Whenever you pull weeds, or pick flowers, or mow the lawn, you remove organic matter from that environment–and if you don’t put anything back, that environment will start to suffer for it.
Don’t worry, though, because compost is the easy fix for this! Compost can often completely remove your need for store-bought fertilizers and wildly boost the health of your plants and soil. It’s really very simple to do, and doesn’t have to cost you anything. Here’s how to get started:
1) Find a place for your compost to live. You generally want this to be out of the way–a place in which you can leave it for several months. Behind a garden shed is a popular choice. Remember, unless turned daily, your compost can get stinky and WILL attract insects, so you don’t want it right under a window or next to a door.
2) Get a container. On farms and fields you can make a compost pile, but for home composting, it’s best to use a solid container. You can buy a container specifically made for the job, but you can just as easily make one yourself. This can be as easy as using a 5-gallon bucket from the hardware store, a large used plant pot, or even an old beat-up trash can with the bottom missing – just make sure to poke some big holes in the bottom for plenty of drainage.
3) Give your new compost something to eat! One of the coolest things about compost is that it can be made exclusively of waste products (things you might be throwing in the green waste or trash can). This can be just about any organic matter – things that were once alive. Instead of throwing your food scraps in the trash, chuck them in the compost. Fruit and veggie scraps/peels/ends (raw or cooked), stale bread, moldy leftovers, eggshells, you name it. Just avoid significant amounts of meat and grease or oil, because these can carry pathogens that will inhibit your compost instead of helping it (they can also attract critters you may not want in your yard). You can also feed your compost home and garden waste, such as grass clippings, pulled weeds, dead leaves, wilted flowers, old pet bedding (straw or wood shavings, etc), used napkins and paper towels, and even paper and cardboard (just be sure to shred it into pieces). Avoid plastics or things with plastic coating–newspapers are great, but shiny magazines not so much. Paper egg cartons are lovely, but milk or juice cartons should still go into the trash. Styrofoam is a big no-no.
4) Watch the carbon to nitrogen ratio. You want your compost to be made of roughly 1/3 nitrogenous materials and 2/3 carbon materials. This sounds complicated, but it’s very simple. The rule of thumb is this: If it’s brown, it’s probably more carbon. This includes cardboard, dead leaves, paper, straw, or wood shavings, etc. If it’s green (or whatever color it was naturally), it probably has more nitrogen in it. This includes food scraps and green grass clippings. Moist, nitrogen-rich materials will generate heat as they break down in combination with the carbon.
5) Keep it hot and damp. Compost needs moist heat to decompose. In California, keeping your compost happy can be as simple as putting a loose lid or cover on your compost container, and occasionally tossing in something wet, like old fruit juice or the water you boiled your pasta in. Be careful not to OVERWATER your compost, or you can flush all the yummy nutrients out of the mixture. Too much moisture, as well as too much heat, can also hurt the F.B.I.–the fungus, bacteria, and insects that do the hard work of breaking down all the decomposing matter into nutrients that plants and soil can use.
6) Mix it up. Every so often, your compost needs to move a little. Help it out by mixing or turning your compost at least once a month to keep the mixture even and to add some fresh air to the equation. You can do this with a pitchfork, shovel, or even a strong stick. If you do this right after adding fresh grass clippings, you can help generate more heat that speeds the process.
7) Lather, rinse, repeat. Keep adding to your compost and check on it perhaps once a week. When you mix or turn it and start finding a dark, earthy, more uniform mixture at the bottom (called humus), you’ve done it! Mix the humus into your soil and enjoy. Your plants–and your environment–will thank you!
All in all, composting is an easy and cost-free way to help your environment and home.
Photo: Compost bucket by kitty meets goat [Creative Commons].