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Composting at Home: Tips and Uses

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Composting at Home: Tips and Uses

Composting at home can be a great way to help the environment while creating fertilizer for your garden. Composting does take a little work, but overall it is easy to do once you get started. Here are some tips and tricks to keep in mind and help you create the perfect compost pile. 

What is Compositing?

Composting is a method of recycling organic materials such as food scraps, leaves, cardboard, paper, eggshells, tea bags, and straw. Compost piles break down due to microbes and soil-dwelling organisms that eat the materials in the pile, breaking them down into a soil-like texture. Compost can be mixed into the soil in your garden, replacing fertilizer and giving your plants the nutrients they need to thrive. 

Benefits of Composting

There are many benefits to composting for both your own uses and for the environment. Some of the benefits of composting include:

  • Keeps food waste out of landfills.
  • Helps clay soils drain better by making them more "airy."
  • Balances soil pH levels.
  • Increases organic matter in the soil.
  • Increases the vitamin and mineral contents of food grown in compost-rich gardens.
  • Add nutrients to the soil.
  • Replaces petroleum-based fertilizers.
  • Helps sandy soil hold onto moisture and resist erosion.
  • Attracts earthworms, considered the "earth's greatest recyclers."

Tips and Tricks for Compositing

There are several tips you should be aware of before starting a compost pile. This will help ensure that your compost pile is a success.

Use Both Greens and Browns

An important part of creating a compost pile is having a good balance of greens and browns. You should generally have a ratio of 4:1 browns (carbon) to greens (nitrogen).

In compost, browns are carbon-rich, dry materials such as cardboard, brown egg cartons, eggshells, dried leaves, twigs and branches, straw, and nuts. The main job of browns in a compost pile is to be food sources for soil-dwelling organisms and microbes that break down the compost pile. Browns also add bulk and help to allow air to filter through the pile. 

Greens are nitrogen-rich, wet materials that are an important part of compost because they help heat up the compost pile, causing microbes in the pile to grow and multiply more quickly. Greens include items like tea bags, grass clippings, vegetable peels and leftovers, fruit scraps, coffee grounds, green plants and leaves, and old flowers. 

Aerate Hot Compost Regularly

To keep the composting process moving, you will want to rotate your pile often. This will allow air to flow through your pile, similar to how you aerate a campfire to keep it burning. Some premade compost bins allow you to easily rotate the bin with a crank or on a roller. If you don't have one of these, you can use a spade to mix up your pile. You will want to turn your pile every 7-10 days when you are first starting out, although you may be able to turn it less once you get going. 

To know when to turn your pile, consider purchasing a compost thermometer and measuring the temperature of your pile. If the center of your pile is above 100°F, you should leave it alone to "cook." If it drops below 100°F, give the pile a good turn. A good, hot compost pile is around 130°F at the center. 

Things to NOT Add to Your Compost Pile

When creating a compost pile, especially when using waste from your kitchen, it is important to know what NOT to add. You should never add dairy, meat, fats, bones, pet waste, or seafood scraps to your compost pile. These items will attract pests and give your compost pile a nasty smell. Your compost should generally smell earthy, not stinky. "Compostable" plastics, despite their name, should also not be added to your compost.

Other items to be wary of, but not entirely avoid include:

  • Pine needles: Have a high acid content, making them great to use as mulch for acid-loving plants like strawberries and rhododendrons. They take a long time to fully compost, so no more than 10% of your pile should consist of pine needles. 
  • Wood ashes: Have a high alkaline level and should be used cautiously. Add to your pile in small amounts, no more than a quarter of an inch at a time. 
  • Grass clippings: The best thing to do for your lawn is to allow your grass clippings to stay in your yard. If you add grass clippings to your compost, make sure to mix them with lots of bulky browns to keep them from becoming too compacted and smelly. 

Use the "Squeeze Test" to Assess Moisture Levels

Using the squeeze test can help determine if your compost pile is too wet or too dry. It is important to keep a moist, but not dripping wet, compost pile. To perform the squeeze test, grab a handful from your pile and give it a squeeze. Compost material should be as wet as a wrung-out sponge. It should not feel dry to the touch, but it should not be dripping water when you squeeze it. 

Use Red Wiggler Worms to Speed Things Up

If you don't have an outdoor space to keep a compost pile or want to help speed up the process, adding red wiggler worms to your compost can help speed things along. Many people have kept successful compost piles this way in a plastic bin, lining the bin with shredded, moist paper. It takes about 12 weeks for this type of compost pile, called vermicomposting. 

Uses for Compost

Compost is nutrient and nitrogen-rich, making it the perfect natural fertilizer for your garden. Some uses for finished compost include:

  • Adding it directly to garden soil.
  • Sprinkle a little into your lawn to help your grass stay green. 
  • Feed your trees by applying fertilizer around the roots. 
  • Use it as mulch in your garden.
  • Mix with potting soil for indoor gardening.

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