Composting is the natural process of decomposition and recycling of organic material into a rich soil additive. Compost improves soil quality by providing essential nutrients and helps retain moisture, which will improve plant health. Compost is used in various ways to boost your soil's health for outdoor and indoor growing while cutting down household waste in landfills!
Benefits of composting include:
- Composting decreases the amount of garbage you put out for curbside collection, which reduces municipal collection and disposal costs.
- Landfills are designed to keep air and moisture out, which are necessary for decomposition. Methane gas and leachate is produced when organics break down under these conditions. So putting less organic waste into your household trash will prolong the life of the landfill and reduce pollution and greenhouse gases.
- Compost is a valuable end product that improves soil and plant health, prevents erosion, retains moisture, and replenishes nutrients in the soil. This reduces the need to water gardens and eliminates the need to purchase other fertilizers.
- Compost is FREE!
How to Start
You can start your compost in a bin or a contained pile. The best place is in a convenient, sunny location on level ground with adequate drainage. Place the bin close enough to your house that it is convenient to access but far enough away to avoid smells or attracting unwanted visitors. The "recipe" for successful composting is a ratio between "browns" (carbon sources) and "greens" (nitrogen sources). Browns include items such as dried leaves, wood chips or shavings, straw, dried cut grass, and weeds before they seed. Greens include kitchen scraps such as fruit and vegetable pieces, eggshells, coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, and cut flowers.
It can be helpful to start your composter with browns like sticks and branches to provide a base that allows air to circulate. Then, you can begin layering browns and greens.
The process requires moisture and oxygen so it's important to keep your pile moist and turn it regularly with a shovel or pitchfork. The smaller the particles, the quicker they will break down, so chop up larger scraps like corn cobs before placing them in the composter. To speed the composting process, stir it as often as every 3 to 5 days. Otherwise, turning every couple of weeks in warm weather will be sufficient.
What Not to Compost
Avoid diseased plant material or plants that have gone to seed as they may spread through your compost. Keep plants or wood treated with pesticides or preservatives out as well.
Don't put meat, bones, dairy, fats, oils, pet waste, charcoal,coal ash, or eggs (eggshells are fine) in your compost. Make sure inorganic materials such as plastics, produce stickers, elastic bands, etc are left out as well. These items will not break down or can contaminate your compost. This includes "compostable plastics" such as bags, cutlery etc. as they only break down in specific types of industrial composting facilities. Another reason why it is essential to reduce waste rather than replace it with different types.
Compost Troubleshooting Tips
If your compost is too dry or wet, items may not decompose properly. If it is too dry, simply add water. If it is too wet, add more browns (carbon-rich material) to absorb the moisture. Your compost should feel like a wrung-out sponge. When you squeeze a handful, no more than a couple of drops of liquid should come out.
Odors may arise if your compost is too wet or compact. Turn the pile (mixing it with a shovel or pitchfork) to allow it to dry out, and/or add more browns. When adding new material, make a hole in the top of the pile, stir in the organics and cover with dry ingredients, such as leaves. Always try to have a layer of browns on top of your pile to keep smells down.
You can also add soil at any stage of the layering process. A shovelful of soil will introduce many soil organisms into your pile and act as an accelerator. A thin layer on top will also discourage pests. Look for critters such as worms, centipedes, and other insects to appear in your composter, as they will help break down the material,and also make the pile less appealing to animals and prevent flies.
Composting in the winter? Don't let the cold scare you away from keeping up your pile! You can continue composting throughout the winter. The material won't decay until spring, but the freeze/thaw cycles make it break down quickly once spring arrives. When the temperature warms, add a shovelful of dirt or dried leaves and give it a good mix.
The Finished Product
When all is done, you will end up with beautiful, nutrient-rich compost. This can happen in as quick as six months or take up to 2 years, if you don't follow the proper steps. Finished compost should be dark brown in colour and should have a pleasant smell.
Wait until the pile is fully inactive before using the compost. The microbial activity generates heat, so when finished, the centre of the pile should no longer feel hot.
Mix finished compost with garden soil to use in a flower or vegetable garden, no more than 8cm deep. You can also screen out larger items that have not broken down (twigs, etc.), return them to the pile, and spread finished compost on your lawn as a top dressing, no more than 1cm deep.
Ready to get started? Get a composter at EcoSuperior, subsidized by the City of Thunder Bay.