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October 7, 2020

Composting 101: Part 1: The Basics

By Amanda Rose Newton

Why Compost?

Most of us are at least vaguely familiar with composting and that it is generally deemed a good exercise to engage in. How and where to start is often not as clear.

To help you in your journey as we all try to make the move towards sustainability, part 1 of this 2-part blog series covers the basics of composting and how to start.

What is Composting?

Compost is defined as a mixture that mostly consists of organic matter that can be used to improve the condition of your soil.

In other words, it’s basically homemade plant food you help generate! This can include food scraps, parts of produce you do not eat, old newspaper, wood chips, leaves from the yard, straw, grass clippings, and even coffee grounds.

Not only does it cut down on your own trash, but the decomposing materials release valuable nutrients that reenergize the soil and bring life to your plants. A win-win for gardeners everywhere!

How to Start Composting

One of the biggest misconceptions about the compost world is that one needs a lot of space to get started. Even city dwellers can create compost if the proper reciprocal and approaches are used. Identifying which will work best for your situation is the first step.

If you have a backyard- You have options! You have space to use just about any method you desire, whether that is to simply start a pile in an underutilized corner of the yard or if you want to build a wooden bin to keep it more contained, you can do it.

Ideally, compost needs warm temperatures, but you want to avoid placing in a direct sun environment. As most Floridians know- there is such a thing as too hot!

Placing the pile far from your home is ideal if odors are a concern.

No backyard- Apartment and townhome dwellers, do not despair! You can get crafty and come up with some innovative bins. My most successful venture with composting was using a bin designed for urban spaces, which they sell at various specialty shops online.

If you are more of a D.I.Y. kind of person, you can get creative with recyclable materials (think old butter tubs, coffee cans, etc) to create an ideal place for food scraps.

You can choose to store this under the sink in a cabinet or out on a porch/balcony where it will stay at an ideal temperature.

Choosing a Compost Container

You can use just about anything you want as a compost container! The overall idea is that by placing compostable materials in an enclosed system, you will be able to control the air flow, water, and temperature of the pile.

Here is a short list of the many common items that can be transformed as composting stations:

OUTDOOR:
• Old trashcans with holes punched in lids and bottoms
• Cardboard boxes (twofer- it will naturally break down)
• Plastic totes (10-gallon size or larger)
• Purchased Composting tumblers
*For outdoor piles, you can always just keep it uncontained and go container-free.

INDOOR:
• Coffee cans with holes in the lid
• Butter tubs with holes in the lid
• Old pots with lids
• Small indoor trashcans
• Purchased “urban” composter

What do you need to make compost happen?

Now that you have your container picked out, you can get to the fun part! All compost needs the following to be successful

Decomposers:

These guys are what does a lot of the breaking down of larger particles. Worms, fungi, insects, and bacteria all fall into this category.

Food for the Decomposers: in the form of Browns and Greens

Browns and Greens?!

While most plant material is compostable, the right mix can speed up your time from scraps to compost and cut down on odor potential.

To keep it simple, materials are either grouped in the “brown” or “green” category.

Browns Include high carbon-containing materials and as the term suggests, tend to be earthy in color.

Greens are rich in nitrogen, which aids in plant growth and tend to be material we associate with life and vibrancy (green).

Browns decay at a slower rate, which can help balance the fast-moving greens. By mixing your browns and greens, you are helping to control the temperature, air flow, and breakdown rate of the compost.

Here is a quick list of common items that fall into the two categories:

Browns: Mulch, Sawdust, Straw, Animal Bedding, Leaves, paper

Greens: vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, grass clippings, eggshells

What Can’t You Compost?

Fortunately, the list of what you CAN compost is longer than the list of those you cannot. Here is a handy quick list of materials to avoid in your bin, whether it is indoors or out.

Items NOT to Compost

Oils, fats, animal products (including dairy)- These simply do not break down well
Unwashed eggshells-Make sure you wash all eggshells before composting, as unwashed can harbor harmful bacteria
Weeds- If you are putting your compost directly into plant beds or raised gardens, you run the risk of reintroducing weeds in the form of seeds if included in the mix.
Cat or Dog waste- Although many kinds of manure are considered okay to compost, pet manure breaks down differently and tends to attract pests to the pile.
Diseased plant material- Even if it’s a dead plant, the fungal spores or bacterial pathogens can still be present and make their way into the pile to wreak havoc again in your garden.

When is compost ready?

After you have been adding to your pile for a few weeks, you will start to notice larger pieces becoming less visible and major shrinkage in volume.

Once the color becomes a dark, rich color that naturally clumps in your hands, you have something that plants will flourish in!

Here are two simple tests you can do to ensure your compost is indeed, garden-ready:

1. The Bag Test
This is as simple as it sounds. Place some of your compost into a sealed plastic bag for a day. After the 24 hours have passed, open it up and take a whiff! Completed compost should smell earthy, not stinky! If it smells like food waste, sour, or anything but soil-like, it needs more time.

2. The Germination Test
As mentioned, compost is literally food for your plants. This should make a happy environment for any young seedling to flourish in, and that is what the germination test is all about. If it has the adequate nutrient supply from breaking down a variety of decomposing organic matter, it should be able to support the life of a plant. To test, sow seeds into compost alone and see if anything sprouts. If it grows, it’s good to go!

Troubleshooting Odors
Odors are the biggest complaint I hear about those new to the world of composting. Since you are now an expert on the relationship between browns and greens, you can use that knowledge to quickly put an end to stinky situations.

Rotten Odors. Too little airflow is usually behind those putrid egg smells wafting from the compost bin. Luckily, this can be easily resolved by good old fashioned, compost flipping! Turning your compost over and exposing new areas to the surface help break it up and get the air flowing.

They even sell crank-operated compost bins where all you need to do is turn the lever ever so often to get the air moving. Another solution is to add more browns to help slow those fast-acting greens down!

The balance of carbon and nitrogen will help absorb some of the access moisture which might also be a culprit.

Ammonia Odors. If your pile is taking on a strong ammonia scent, likely too many nitrogen’s filled greens are to blame.

Make sure you add in extra browns and try to keep an even balance to reduce the excess nitrogen present in your bin. Turning the pile will also help with releasing gases and reducing moisture.

Now that you know the basics of creating, storing, and troubleshooting compost, you can confidently start wasting less produce, spending less on fertilizers, and adopting more sustainable landscape practices that will reward you with beautiful plants and biodiversity.

Next week we will take our compost game up a notch and explore vermicomposting and compost tea to continue down the path towards a more sustainable home garden.