You can green up your life a little while furnishing yourself with some free nutrient-rich soil (hello, fresh tomatoes!) at the same time. Composting is the ultimate form of recycling. Let's go over the basics:
What Is It?
Quite simply, compost is decomposed organic material comprised mostly of plant, paper and food waste.
The most immediate benefit to composting is that it creates a nutrient rich soil amendment that improves soil quality for potted plants, lawns and gardens. Compost helps to balance pH levels, texture and water retention capabilities in both clay and sandy soils, all of which make for happier, more vibrant and higher producing lawns, flower beds, and vegetable and fruit gardens. Mixing compost with soil and/or using it as mulch also saves money by re-purposing waste items and reducing the amount of and need for costly chemical fertilizers that are often damaging to soil and toxic to the people who live on it.
Yard and food waste easily consists of 25% or more of the solid waste material that households send to the dump. Therefore, on a more global scale, composting helps lessen the space required for landfills as well as reduces the amount of chemicals used in lawn and garden care that with continued use can seep into and contaminate the ground water system. It's a win-win-win.
How To Do It Yourself
Backyard composting containers can be purchased through an online retailer such as CompostBins.com, at a local garden supply store or custom constructed. The simplest homemade compost bins are fashioned by making a simple circular, tube-like enclosure with chicken wire. In some regions rats and other vermin can be a problem because they’ll abscond with the food waste items. In those areas, an enclosed bin is recommended.
Think of composting like making lasagna. Start with a thick base layer of grass clippings and chopped leaves. Add a layer of kitchen waste (coffee grounds, over-ripe fruits and vegetables, eggshells and whatever else is available). Cover with a four to eight inch layer of soil, animal manure (from herbivorous animals only), or finished compost. Add alternating layers of yard and kitchen waste with layers of soil until the pile is three to four feet high.
Decomposition requires moisture and aeration. The best location for a compost pile is a somewhat shaded spot where it will not dry out from sun exposure. Occasionally turn (mix) the compost to promote oxygenation and proper decomposition. Add small amounts of water to the compost pile if it appears dry.
A three-foot-square and three-foot-high compost pile should generate enough heat to sterilize the compost so that it’s suitable for use in gardens and on lawns. Smaller and/or new compost piles may require a “compost activator” to get the ball rolling such as alfalfa, bone, cottonseed or blood meal that can be purchased at a garden supply store.
Composting using worms, called vermicomposting, is another way to break down food waste quickly and can easily be done indoors. It’s recommended to buy or build a worm composting farm such as is available from online retailer Gardens Alive. The worms will turn the waste into a nutrient rich soil additive. Earthworms can also be added to a backyard composting pile as well.
To Compost or Not to Compost?
What can be tossed onto the compost heap is largely a matter of common sense. Below is a partial list of common household items that can and cannot be composted. Check local or online resources for a more comprehensive list.
1. Kitchen scraps (grains, bread, cornmeal, fruits and vegetables, flour, rice, egg shells, potato peels)
2. Lawn clippings
3. Weeds, pine needles, dead (but not diseased) plants
4. Shredded paper and cardboard
5. Straw and hay
6. Newspaper (black and white only)
7. Wood chips, and untreated sawdust
8. Tea leaves and coffee grounds
9. Human or animal hair
10. Crushed sea shells
11. Animal waste from herbivores (horses, cows, rabbits)
12. Vacuum bag waste
Do Not Compost:
1. Animal by-products such as meat, lard, bones
2. Dairy products such as cheese or milk
3. Mayonnaise, salad dressing or peanut butter
4. Chemically or pressure treated wood and sawdust
5. Wood ash
6. Colored newsprint or paper
7. Plastics, foils or metals
8. Dog, cat and bird waste
9. Used kitty Litter
10. Human waste
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