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Compost Successfully: Part 1

By Lauren Mangion
December 17, 2008
File under: Landscaping, Natural Alternatives, Remodeling Green


Waste reduction is a main tenet of earth-friendly living, and composting is one of the simplest and most effective ways to reduce your landfill-bound waste by 30-40%. The earthy and nutrient-rich humus that your fruit and veggie scraps and yard waste become is a coveted resource for any gardener. Good compost will restore nutrients and effective microorganisms to the soil web, which plants rely on for their nutrients. It makes an excellent soil amendment- allowing soil to retain moisture better, keeping weeds down and compost can act as a mulch, warming the soil in cooler temperatures and keeping it cool in heat.

Successful composting is not a complicated process. It is a matter of balance; and the good thing is that even when your pile is out of balance it is not difficult to make the necessary adjustments. The four essential keys to a rich garden-friendly humus in a short period of time are heat, moisture, and proportional nitrogen (greens) and carbon (browns).

Heat comes from both the sun and the activity of the microorganisms that break down the material in the pile. For most of us, compost piles are ideally located in an area that gets as much direct sunlight as possible. If you live in a particularly dry and hot climate or an area with heavy winds, a little shade will be necessary to prevent a perpetually dry pile, which won’t break down and may invite rodents and other critters to shack up.

A moderate moisture content is critical. An overly wet pile will rot (in the wrong way) and get slimy. The general rule of thumb is that your compost material should be as moist as a wrung-out sponge. Two water saving tips: during rain, open up the lid to your bin and let nature do the watering. Fill your kitchen scrap container with water from your rain barrel after dumping the material on the pile. This will rinse out the container and water the pile.

Nitrogen (greens) are your kitchen scraps, fresh cut grass (not too much- avoid thick layers, not more than six centimeters), coffee grounds, tea bags,  and plant trimmings.

Carbon (browns) include dried grass and leaves, egg shells, sawdust, coffee filters, newspaper shreds, straw, hair, dust and lint.

You are going for an equal ratio of greens and browns in the bin. The way I achieve this is by collecting a bag or two of dried leaves in the fall and keeping it by the bin. When I add fresh green material to the pile, I also add a handful or two of dried leaves.  This also serves to cover the fresh material and keeps the flies down.

Check back for more on troubleshooting and uses for finished compost.

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