The Basics of Composting

Composting is one of the best things we can do for the environment and our own personal health. 

Among other things, composting is one easy way to help eliminate unnecessary food waste, improve our own health, and support the environment. 

We are a consumer society, and statistics show that those in North America throw away 40% of their food. 

Considering that people are starving around the world, as well as locally where the waste is occurring, this statistic is a hard pill to swallow. 

Poor planning causes much of this food waste. Supermarkets and restaurants may not do the proper consumer research and supply calculation when purchasing food and thus do not utilize food stuffs within the freshness window. 

Many of us are guilty of the same mistake in our own kitchens, as evidenced by the occasional slimy green mess at the bottom of our crispers. We can work on the inadvertent waste by becoming more organized, but sometimes we waste food deliberately, simply because we’re tired of eating the same thing or we have too much left over. 

We should consider embracing or reinventing leftovers or donating still edible food when possible and appropriate. 

For personal food waste that cannot be repurposed, particularly daily scraps, the backyard compost pile is the best solution.

In addition to being ecologically sound and sustainable, composting is great for our health. 

From over-planting and the advent of chemical interventions in farming, our soils are now depleted of vital nutrients.

A standard diet that includes plenty of fresh vegetables no longer provides the benefits it once did. Organic vegetables and fruits are a better bet, but we don’t ever know for sure exactly how the produce was grown. 

A backyard organic garden, replete with rich vitamins and minerals from homemade compost, puts nutrition in our own hands.

How to compost

A compost pile is easy to maintain and will utilize most of our cooking scraps. 

Animal products will spoil a compost pile, with the exception of eggshells, which are a source of calcium and may be included. 

Fruit and vegetable scraps can be added to the pile, and comprise most of the “green” portion of the compost, but fresh yard clippings can be part of the green as well. The green ingredients in compost add nitrogen to the mix, essential to healthy garden plants. 

To balance the moisture and texture of the decomposing compost, it’s important to add “brown” ingredients too. The brown, providing carbon to the mix, can be dried plant matter, like leaves, but shredded paper, especially unbleached, can fit the bill as well. 

The general ratio should be 2/3 green to 1/3 brown, but you can adjust the levels as you go, based on how moist the mix is. If it’s too soggy, add more brown. 

Finished compost will have a rich, loamy texture, and should be an additive to otherwise healthy soil. It will eliminate the need for chemical fertilizer.

It’s important to aerate the compost, turning it periodically with a pitchfork, making sure that fresh scraps are buried under bits that are farther along in decomposition. This will speed the breakdown of the scraps, but it also serves to eliminate odors. 

A well-decomposed compost pile has a pleasant, organic, earthy smell that bears no resemblance to rotting food. 

All compost ingredients decompose at different rates, but breaking them down into smaller pieces speeds the process. 

The whole pile should be ready in around six months or so, if proper moisture and aeration are maintained. 

It may be advisable to have a couple of piles going at once, so you can stop adding fresh scraps to a pile that is almost ready. If you are creating compost piles directly on an existing patch of earth, be mindful of future plans for the location. A former compost plot is prime real estate for a vegetable garden, as the ground underneath is enriched with the nutritious runoff.

Fencing the pile is helpful for maintaining its verticality, which holds essential moisture, and it also may deter certain marauding critters, which will only be attracted to the pile in early stages of decomposition. 

If the compost pile is not in a shady spot, a tarp or other cover may be helpful in maintaining moisture. 

Avoid adding seeds of any kind to the compost, which will create super-healthy weeds that will be hard to eliminate from a garden.

What if you don’t have much space in the yard for composting?

Not all of us have a patch of land we feel comfortable covering with rotting foodstuffs, or we may live in close proximity to neighbors who may not love compost the way we do. 

There are many options for contained composting which may be better in these circumstances than an earth-bound pile. 

The best option is probably the rotating composter, a barrel on a “spit” that can be rotated with each addition, mixing new into old. Since the mix is contained in a composter, warmth and moisture are easily maintained. Many other, less sophisticated designs are available for purchase, but a trash can with added aeration holes could be just as effective as long as it is turned with a pitchfork when needed.

Much more extensive information is widely available about the specifics of composting, but these are the basics. If you see your pile steaming, don’t worry – decomposition creates heat. 

This just means that when it comes to composting, you’re doing it right!



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