Want to check even more items off your fall checklist? Find out how to start a compost pile in today’s post, then get to it!
What is compost, exactly?
Compost is part noun, part verb and all energy! Eco-friendly advocates say it’s the unwanted food and yard waste filling up to 30 percent of our garbage bins these days, helping to bloat landfills and releasing greenhouse gases into the air. But compost is also about creating the perfect environment for organic waste to decompose into a rich, natural additive that nourishes the soil, helping to grow plants that are disease and pest-free. Compost also reduces the need for chemical fertilizers and lowers our carbon footprint.
Browns, greens, water and layers. The recipe for compost has three basic ingredients that combine into one simple technique. An equal amount of dead leaves, branches and twigs,otherwise known as browns, are layered on top of grass clippings, vegetable waste, fruit scraps and coffee grounds ( greens) to make a pile. Water is added to the alternate layers of browns and greens to assist the carbon and nitrogen they contain in breaking it all down to its essential organic goodness, speeding up the process of making compost.
When starting a compost pile, layer the material in uniform layers between 6-8 inches thick. For the first layer, use your newly gathered browns and greens, choosing the bulkier organics. For the second layer, consider using animal manures, fertilizers or starters to activate the heating process. The third layer is comprised of a good top soil or active compost, between 1-2 inches thick.
Once your pile starts decomposing to create humus, that rich garden elixir, there’s no need to continue the layering process. Materials can be added by burying them in the center and incorporating them when you turn the pile.
What NOT to compost. It’s a lot easier to identify the appropriate browns and greens in your garbage and yard waste bins than knowing what might not qualify for composting.
Good browns and greens come from grass clippings, hay, straw and twigs, but not black walnut tree leaves or twigs. Why? Because when they decompose they can be harmful to other plants.
Fruits and veggies are good, but throw away meat or fish bones and scraps, because they smell and attract pests. Eggshells are a “yes,” but dairy products like eggs, butter, milk, sour cream and yogurt are a “no” because they too create odor. Leave stinky fats, grease, lard or oils for the dumpster.
Include yard trimmings, wood chips and cotton or wool rags that are not treated with chemical pesticides, as well as fireplace ashes, but not coal or charcoal ash, which can contain substances harmful to plants. Houseplants are good, diseased or insect-ridden plants of any kind are not, for obvious reasons. Surprisingly, compostable material includes dryer and vacuum cleaner lint, hair, fur and manure. However, forget any pet waste or soiled cat litter, which might contain parasites, bacteria, germs, pathogens and viruses that are harmful to humans. Other usual suspects include newspaper, cardboard products, nut shells, tea bags, coffee grounds and filters.
If you’re wondering what not to compost, check with your local composting or recycling center to see what organics are accepted at your curbside or drop-off waster removal programs.
Starting the pile. After you start collecting materials for your compost pile, decide where you’re going to build it. If you have a large enough yard, find a dry, shady spot and start the pile right on the ground. Homeowners who have limited space or want to keep things tidy may want to find a container for composting, placed in an equally convenient spot outside. In either case, choose a place that’s level with good drainage, where a water source is easily accessible.
Size and temperature matter. You want a compost pile large enough to maintain the heat needed to break down material efficiently, but small enough for the water to do its job, and for you to turn the pile easily. Some experts recommend a space no larger than 5 feet x 5 feet x 5 feet. To keep the neighbors happy, camouflaging your compost pile may be necessary; aim for plantings or trellises that help it to blend in with the environment.
In about two weeks, the compost pile will produce enough heat for rapid decomposition, between 110° to 160°F. However, it could take two months, or longer. If you notice the pile settling, then it’s probably working properly. As you add new material, turn the pile each time. Some compost containers are made to roll over end to end for just this purpose. If the temperature dips below 110°F, keep your pile as active as possible with a turn and a drink, adding enough water that the material feels damp to the touch.
Finally, after all that hard work, avoid letting your compost languish in a pile! Spread it on the lawn to make it more lush. Incorporate it into your garden patch to grow bigger, healthier vegetables. Feed your flower beds, your house and container plants too, and keep them pest-free.
- Compost bin or container (if desired)
- Wheelbarrow and shovel
- Pitch fork or landscape rake, for turning the pile
- Garden hose or watering can
- Pruners, machete or shredder, to cut up large pieces of organic waste
- Compost thermometer, to monitor temperature. A practical solution to this is a metal pole inserted into the center of the pile. The metal can indicate heat level by touch.
About the Author
Tempe Thompson is a sales and inventory expert at Runyon Equipment Rental. She has over 35 years of experience and has accumulated a tremendous amount of knowledge and expertise. She could talk for hours about how to use all of Runyon’s tools and equipment, in addition to suggesting which type corresponds to a certain application.