All it takes to make compost, which simply is converting food scraps and yard materials into rich, healthy soil, is a small space in the yard or any one of the many types of manufactured composting bins. Of course a little effort on your part is required too. But less than you might think. Soil made from composting has many advantages over the soil in your garden or yard that might be depleted of nutrients:
- Less watering, a benefit in the midst of our Texas drought, compost absorbs and retains moisture.
- Less fertilizer because compost is rich in nutrients.
- Compost improves the structure of heavy clay soils as well as loose sandy soils.
- It makes plants healthier and therefore more resistant to disease and pests.
- Healthier plants reduces the need for herbicides and pesticides.
- Less watering, fertilizing and treating saves you money!
Food waste is the largest component of solid waste in landfills.. There, it gets buried and breaks down mostly without oxygen to account for 23% of all U.S. emissions of methane, by contrast, food which decomposes using oxygen, such as our home composting does, produces far less methane, around 7.25%.
Composting reduces household trash volume, which could mean fewer garbage bags filling fewer garbage trucks hauling to fewer the landfills, thus greatly lowering fuel use and emissions. A typical trash truck consumes about 9,000 gallons of diesel fuel per year, according to the Solid Waste Association of North America. Many people who start composting simply because of a love of gardening, find that they can cut their household garbage volume by as much as 75%!
Texans send 5 million-plus tons of organic yard materials to landfills each year, too, paying roughly $3 million for the privilege, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
Although all that’s really needed to begin composting is a corner of the yard where you dispose of kitchen and yard waste in a pile or hole, many chose a rotating barrel-style bin with an aeration system. “I wanted to be able to turn it easily, and I discovered that aeration helps the process go faster, so I wanted a system to do that,” says Micha L. of Kyle, Texas. Alternately, North Austin resident and composter George A. makes compost for his lush landscaping in a standing commercial bin because it takes up "so little space and isn’t a noticeable eye soar for my neighbors".
A kitchen container to hold materials until you’re ready to take them outside comes in handy. This can be a jar or bucket, or something made specifically for collecting compost, anything large enough to hold at least a meal’s worth of scraps but small enough to keep handy works well.
"It should also be easy to clean and have a lid," adds my wife, Holly U.
A good rule of thumb is about one-third green and two-thirds brown by volume. Green, nitrogen-rich items include grass clippings and food scraps (you can even add nitrogen by dumping some 100% Alfalfa rabbit food pellets into your pile suggest Joe). Brown, high-carbon items include dry leaves, newspaper and cardboard. (Joe says he gathers up bags full of leaves from his neighbors to add all of the Brown he needs for his 7 compost bins.)
Certain materials don’t lend themselves to compost. Meat, fish and dairy products will compost but also, unfortunately, attract critters. Weeds or invasive plants in your compost could spread their undesirable seeds, and most hay contains a weed killer that passes through horses unscathed, so hay in your compost could kill the plants on which you use it. Cow and chicken manure are OK, but cat and dog waste contain harmful pathogens. Non-biodegradable materials such as plastic and metal won’t break down and are a definite no-no in the compost pile.
The right amount of moisture is also important: Too much can create odor, so compost that smells probably needs more brown units; too little moisture slows down composting. Joe Scott fills his bin with dry leaves, adds water to moisten, then regularly adds vegetable matter from the kitchen.
“After a short time composting you can simply eyeball it to be sure it is the right mix. It needs to be nice and moist, not sloppy wet, but not too dry" Joe explains, "the microorganisms that break down materials and create new soil need plenty of surface area, so it helps to cut, break or shred components from the house or the yard before putting them in the pile."
Those new to composting often worry about insects and other pests, but experts say that if you do things right, compost won’t attract any more pests than a typical yard or garden.
Burying food scraps under a layer of brown material (dry leaves or paper) and keeping the pile moist but not wet helps keep undesirable insects out of the bin. Turning the compost to create higher temperatures also kills fly larvae and weed seeds. A bin with a lid and bottom helps cut down on larger pests, such as opossums or raccoons or armadillos.
Methods for turning depend on the type of composting system you’re using—a shovel, pitchfork or rake works for a pile, while some manufactured units have built-in mechanisms to rotate the compost.
The best time to turn is when the compost is 140 to 160 degrees. You can measure this with a compost thermometer, available at many gardening supply stores or online. Or you can turn about once a week on average. Turning more than once a week disturbs the microorganisms and disrupts the process. If you don’t turn your compost at all, it will still compost, but it takes longer.
Compost is most effective when used within six months. When planting a garden, mix 1 to 2 inches of compost into the top 6 inches of soil. Sprinkle a one-quarter, to a one-half-inch layer of compost on an established lawn or garden, and water it in. You can also use compost as one-third of a potting soil mix. The organic content of composted soil also provides nutrients for beneficial microbes and worms, which in turn make your garden even healthier.
Compost fans say the practice can take a little getting used to, but the end result, healthier plants and a healthier planet, make it well worth the effort!