Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could halt the endless cycle of sending biodegradable material like eggshells, grass trimmings, stale bread, etc. into landfills where they essentially do the opposite of biodegrading. Furthermore, wouldn’t it be equally as exciting if we could also turn these materials into prodigiously carbon and nitrogen-rich substances that could be used to aid in growing trees, flowers, and garden vegetables and fruits. Hopefully your response to these questions was a resounding yes! If so, the good news is that essentially anyone can accomplish these goals through composting.
So what exactly is composting anyway? Composting is a process by which organic material decomposes naturally with the help of fungi, bacteria, and sometimes even invertebrates like earthworms. All one needs in order to undertake this rewarding and environmentally beneficial process is a container such as a compost bin or tumbler (click on this link for examples of them), a little bit of backyard space, biodegradable food and backyard refuse, and some patience as it takes time for the aforementioned microscopic organisms and invertebrates to turn carbon and/or nitrogen rich material into compost.
Thus far I have only referred to the composting process. However, compost itself is also known as “Black Gold” in the horticultural world due its full-bodied, dark appearance, and it is revered because of its dense nutrient content, especially in regards to the abundance of carbon and nitrogen it contains. Think of compost as something not identical to but similar to humus. Often the two are used interchangeably but they are in fact unique in their nutrient content and how they are formed.
For instance, humus, which is the organic component of soil formed by the decomposition of leaves and other plant material by soil microorganisms, is located in the uppermost layer of soil called the “O Horizon.” Therefore, humus is its own entity, meaning it isn’t actually soil itself. It is extremely carbon rich. However, it does not have many other nutrients in it aside from carbon. Also, it is formed via anaerobic decomposition over an extended period of time.
On the other hand, compost is achieved via aerobic decomposition at average to very high temperatures over a much shorter length of time. This produces a material that is rich in not only carbon but also nitrogen, in addition to other nutrients. Humus is essentially what compost would become if it were left alone to be further broken down by microbial decomposition. Since composting lacks this additional decomposition phase, it therefore contains additional nutrients that the microbes would have otherwise used up and broken down over time.
So now that we know a little more about the minutiae of compost, it is time to discuss what generally should and should not be composted and also how to “care” for your compost. Remember, your compost pile is a panoply of biological life and needs some TLC in order to thrive.
Once you have purchased your compost bin, tumbler, or maybe even created your own, it’s time to start tossing all that kitchen and backyard “waste” into your compost container. But wait! Is it ok to throw meat in there? What about weeds? Coffee grounds? Leaves? Do I need to throw any or all of this waste into the bin in a particular order? The answers could be yes for all of these or a combination of yes and no depending on your experience and method of composting.
First, let’s talk about the order/nutrient composition of your bin. So, yes, you should alternate layers of moist material such as food scraps with layers of dry material such as leaves and straw. This will ensure your pile doesn’t get too moist and dense or too dry and chockfull of difficult to break down the material. Although, once the composting process commences it will be adequate to just mix in materials from there onward. Additionally, you ideally want more carbon-containing material than nitrogen-containing material in your pile; a good rule of thumb is to aim for obtaining a C to N ratio of about 30:1. Keep the pile covered to avoid too much moisture getting in, and turn it once or twice a month to aerate it. For a thoroughly detailed explanation on compost pile maintenance, I recommend checking out these composting directions.
Now, let’s address what can and “can’t” go into your compost pile. I put “can’t” in quotation marks because I have read so many articles where one individual says a particular item can get composted, and another says it can’t… Since this article is focusing on the basics of composting, I don’t want to overwhelm it with tricky or controversial items. Below is a list of items you should consider composting and others you should if you’re just starting. This list is by no means exhaustive and is only meant to offer a template by which to work.
Examples of Green Items (high in nitrogen)
- Coffee grounds
- Fruit scraps (ideally without skin due to possible pesticide residue)
- Vegetable scraps
- Tea leaves
- Egg shells
- Grass clippings (fresh)
- Manure (high in nitrogen)
Examples of Brown Items (high in carbon)
- Shredded paper
- Tea bags
- Coffee filters
- Pine needles
- Corn Cobs
- Cotton or wool fabric scraps
- Dryer Lint
- Grass clippings (dried)
- Leaves (dead)
- Peat Moss
Only Compost with Sufficient Knowledge of How to Properly Do So
• Citrus rinds (a no-no in vermicomposting)
• Cooked food
• Oily food
• Diseased plants and
• Poisonous plants such as poison ivy
• Materials exposed to toxic chemicals
• Cat manure and litter
The composting life is relatively simple to commence but a bit more challenging to perfect. That being said, start off easy and work your way up. Purchase a composting container and compost the items you know are ok and leave the iffy ones for another day. As you progress and do your own research, your knowledge and confidence (and compost pile) will expand while your ecological footprint will drastically decrease due to much of your backyard and kitchen waste no longer being sent to landfills. Aside from that, you will also create a delectable carbon and nitrogen rich snack to add to your soil and thereby help your trees, flowers, and garden items to proliferate even more. It’s a win for you, your biological landscape, the microbial world, and the earth!
What do you compost?
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