Home Composting

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Fundamentals of Home Composting

Composting is a natural process. Organic materials such as leaves, grass, and vegetable scraps are broken down by microorganisms, forming a rich soil-like substance called compost or humus.

Keys to successful home composting

Organic materials: A good mix consists of two parts "browns" (materials such as dead leaves that are high in carbon) and one part "greens" (such as fresh grass clippings and garden prunings that are high in nitrogen).

  • Moisture: Composting materials should feel moist but not overly soggy.
  • Temperature: Compost should feel warm to the touch except in the cold winter months.
  • Air: To prevent unpleasant odors that can occur when materials decompose without oxygen, compost should be turned regularly to ensure that air is reaching the center of the pile.
High Carbon "Browns High Nitrogen "Greens" Sources of Composting Organisms
Leaves Grass Old Compost
Dead Plants Green Weeds Soil
Straw Manure Cow Manure
Shredded Paper Alfalfa or Clover Chicken Manure
Shredded Twigs Seaweed or Pond Algae Horse Manure
Pine Needles Non-Meat and Non-Dairy Kitchen Scraps Commercially Available Composting "Starters"
Sawdust from Untreated Wood
Old Compost

Materials Needed for Home Composting

All you need to compost is enthusiasm, yard or food waste (except meat or dairy products), and some space. Compost piles don't need to be enclosed, although many people use a bin or similar enclosure. Compost bins can be purchased, or you can easily construct one with common materials such as chicken wire, snow fencing, lumber or used pallets. Other tools that come in handy for composting are a garden hose, wheelbarrow and common garden tools.

Getting Started

A 4 x 4 x 4-foot area out of direct sunlight is ideal for your compost pile. Choose an easily accessible spot on a grass or soil base. Composting can begin any time of the year, but many people start in the fall when leaves are abundant.
Organic materials should be mixed, adding water as needed so that the materials feel like a moist, wrung-out sponge. The compost pile should be turned after a few weeks so that the outside layers are exchanged with the center of the pile. Turn compost piles about once a month, except in cold winter conditions. Water can be added during turning, if necessary.

Getting Really Good Home Compost
Problem Solution
Compost is too wet and soggy Turn and add dry material; cover compost
Compost is dry and appears dusty Turn and water; shade compost
Compost is cool to the touch Turn and add high nitrogen "green" materials

What to Avoid

While many yard wastes and kitchen scraps can be successfully composted, some materials should be kept out of the compost pile. Check with your local municipality for specific items which may be prohibited.

Do Not Compost

  • Diseased plants or leaves
  • Persistent weeds (poison ivy, multi-flora rose, bindweed, quack grass, etc.)
  • Human or pet feces
  • Meat, dairy products and kitchen vegetables cooked with animal fats
  • Plants that have gone to seed

Using Home Compost

Compost can be applied directly around the base of trees and shrubs to serve as a mulch. It also can be worked into the top six to eight inches of the soil to provide increased water retention and valuable nutrients.

Brush and Wood Waste

Trimmings from bushes and shrubs are usually not suitable for composting. Home chippers can be used to grind small branches and prunings for mulch, ornamental landscaping or garden pathways. Old Christmas trees and similar brush may also be left in a secluded part of your yard to attract birds and serve as a natural wildlife habitat.