How to start composting at home

Composting at home. Stock photo

REGION – With a vision for the future, Vermont passed a law back in 2012, the Universal Recycling Law, to phase in recycling requirements to reduce or eliminate the excess unnecessary contamination of the environment and waste of natural resources. Now in 2020, the part of the law that directs the recycling of all food scraps becomes a reality. As of July 1, it is prohibited to put most food scraps into the public waste stream where, as almost 25% of our solid waste, they generate climate changing greenhouse gases, pollute water, and cost citizens millions in tax dollars to get hauled away. The solution is reusing and composting so these “wastes” are changed into a valuable resource and not costly environmental pollution.

What’s so good about compost?

Aside from reducing our waste by almost 25%, compost is an excellent soil amendment, probably the best thing you can add to your garden or lawn. Compost will buffer the soil pH, increase vital soil organic matter, improve soil tilth or workability, boost the beneficial soil microbes, and add essential plant nutrients such as phosphate, calcium, and potassium. This will result in stronger, healthier plants so you have healthier food, fewer plant diseases and bugs, and save on fertilizers or lime. What more could you want from something you make yourself?

Are you ready to start composting at home?

Have you already been composting and reaping the benefits? After many years of home composting, I’m convinced that the best way is the simplest method that works for your household. You can get very technical and produce good, fast compost but that becomes a project and most people don’t need another chore these days. Let’s keep it simple so it’s an easy part of daily activities and accomplishes what we need. You can always “upgrade” to technical later if that’s your interest. I’ll begin by answering the basic questions you need to address with a couple options to get started. This discussion is about a “cold” compost method that requires less effort because we add ingredients repeatedly over time and yields high nutrient levels.

Do I need a compost container?

Yes and no. You will need something to collect your food scraps in the kitchen. A medium-sized bin, food saver, or bucket will work fine. A cover is good. Outside, you can simply build a compost pile, but most people do better with a bought or homemade bin. This will look better, control the moisture and temperature, and keep most hungry critters out. Earthworms can be added or will come in from below. Hardware stores and garden centers sell compost bins. A simple DIY compost bin from wooden pallets is a good option. There are many designs online – be flexible and creative.

What can I put into the compost?

The general rule is anything that was once living can be composted. Home composting should be “plant-based” and the list is almost endless. From the kitchen includes all fruit or vegetables scraps, peels, and cores; rice, pasta, and old bread; coffee grounds and tea bags; food-soiled napkins and paper towels; crushed eggshells; and leaves and flowers. From the yard, you can include yard trimmings, surplus grass clippings, discarded garden plants, sawdust and wood chips, wood ashes, and leaves. Some chicken or cow manure can help the process but isn’t required.

  What does not go into compost?

Home composters should not include most animal-based ingredients such as pet manure, meats, fish, bones, cheese, and, of course, non-biodegradable items such as plastics, glass, metals, leathers, etc. Although animal by-products will compost, they can attract unwelcome visitors to your compost and can generate an unpleasant odor if not composted well. The recycling law does allow you to discard your meat, fish, and bone wastes in the regular trash. Also, grass clippings from a lawn treated with weed killers are not good because the chemicals will damage or kill your plants.

  Is there a special recipe for compost?

There are many ways to prepare good compost but they all follow some general principles. Successful compost requires four basic ingredients: greens for nitrogen, browns for carbon, air for oxygen, and water. The mixture should be about twice as much brown as green ingredients. That produces the needed diet for all the microbes that will recycle your raw ingredients into compost.

Greens are mostly kitchen scraps, grass clippings, hay, and manure. Browns include leaves, paper, wood chips and sawdust, straw, and pine needles. The ingredients should be moist but not water logged or soaked. A covered bin or tarp over your pile helps manage the moisture and you should add water if it gets dried out. If your greens and browns get out of balance, you can get objectionable odors like ammonia and poor breakdown. The common problem of a wet smelly mess that doesn’t decompose can often be fixed by mixing in more browns.

  How fast will the compost break down?

Several factors will affect the speed of your compost: size of ingredients, frequency of mixing to add air, and temperature. All kitchen scraps and yard ingredients should be chopped up into smaller pieces for faster composting, including veggies, papers, and leaves – use your lawn mower. The microbes inside your compost need oxygen to work so the more frequently you mix the compost to introduce fresh air, the faster they can work. You can mix every time you add new ingredients, once a week, or “once in a while,” but the more you mix the faster it will go. Do what you can; there is no strict schedule.

Black bins in a sunny location will help keep the compost warm so the microbes can work. Avoid dark, shady locations, if possible. Of course, in the winter, everything freezes solid and will just wait until spring.

When is compost ready to use?

Compost is “mature,” when you can no longer recognize the ingredients that you put in it. One exception: eggshells take years to break down so expect to see them in your finished compost. Break or grind them into tiny pieces and they will be great long-term sources of calcium. Mature compost should look like dark, rich, organic soil with a slightly sweet or musty odor of healthy soil. It will not be pungent or objectionable in any way. A sure sign that it is ready to use is when it is full of earthworms.

  How do I use the compost?

That’s easy: anytime, anyplace, on any plants. Compost is good for everything! May to June is a great time to side dress garden plants with compost to give them the food needed for a strong summer’s growth. No need to mix it into the soil, it will naturally move to the roots. Container plants love a mixture of 50% quality starter mix plus 50% mature compost. Compost doubles as a mulch to suppress weeds and conserve soil moisture too. Fall surface applications help build the soil for next year.

The main thing is to keep it simple. Get a system that works for you and doesn’t become a chore or tedious. It’s important that we stop contaminating our environment with food and yard wastes and makes sense to convert these things into a valuable resource for our homes.

Written by Jim Corven, Fenn Farmstead & Gardens, Mount Holly, Vt.

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