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Essential Tips for Composting

Decomposition: The process of breaking down organic matter physically and chemically by bacterial or fungal action.

1. What to compost

It’s essential to understand how compost works to ensure that your compost pile has the right balance of nutrients. All compostable materials are either nitrogen-based, such as vegetable scraps, coffee grounds and grass clippings or carbon-based, such as leaves, straw and sawdust. In order for your compost pile to be properly balanced, you should aim for a ratio of one third nitrogen-based (green) material and two thirds carbon-based (brown) material. More carbon will always help your pile break down faster and will help to cover up any foul smells.

 

2. What not to compost

One common misconception is that a compost pile is an outdoor trashcan--this couldn’t be further from the truth! Certain substances must always be kept away from your pile. Don’t put meat, bones, fish scraps, milk products, bread, or other animal products into your pile, since they will attract unwanted pests. Also, don’t add animal feces, used personal products or treated paper, as they pose a health risk once the compost is used on plants. Be smart about what goes into your pile, and never add anything that may contain unwanted bacteria or toxins.

 

3. Location and setting up

While some elect to simply pile their compost in the open, a container can speed up the process. A good container will keep the compost at the proper temperature and moisture levels and keep rodents, raccoons, dogs and other animals away. All kinds of containers are available for purchase online or at gardening stores, but there are also plenty of easy ways to make your own using a plastic barrel, box or garbage can. Bob uses a large plastic storage container for his compost pile.

Whatever container you use, make sure that it’s sturdy and can be covered, and don’t forget to drill holes in the sides to allow oxygen to reach the material. Keep your container in a location that will receive a lot of sunlight and is away from any drain pipes. This will keep your pile warm enough for microorganisms to complete the process of decomposition. The more heat your compost generates, the better!

 

4. Maintenance

After you add fruit or vegetable scraps to your compost bin, cover them with a layer of dry leaves or straw, which will help keep pests away from the pile. Be sure your fruit and vegetables are chopped up or broken into smaller pieces for easier decomposition. Always cover your container after adding material. About once a week, use a shovel or pitchfork to turn the pile. Turning your compost is critical for allowing air and moisture to be distributed through all of the materials in the pile while also facilitating their breakdown. If your pile goes too long without being turned, the microbes will begin to produce hydrogen sulfide which will cause the pile to smell like rotten eggs- so don’t forget this step!

Your compost pile should be damp at all times. If the compost is too dry the decomposition process will slow down, too wet and the pile will not receive enough airflow and it could begin to smell. Rainwater will provide moisture to your pile, but if it appears too dry you can lightly water it with a garden hose. The pile should be moist to the touch, but if you pick up a handful of material, it should not be dripping with water.

If your compost is slow to decompose, try adding red worms to the mix. These composting earthworms will break down the mix more quickly than allowing it to decompose on its own. However, worms will naturally be attracted to your compost pile if you build it on a plot of soil, so adding worms to your pile is not critical for successfully composting.

Further reading:

http://www.thisoldhouse.com/toh/photos/0,,20232973,00.html

http://eartheasy.com/grow_compost.html