Composting is the decomposition of plant remains and other once-living materials. It is a way to recycle your yard and kitchen waste, which can reduce the volume of garbage needlessly sent to landfills. The result of composting is compost? an earthy, dark, crumbly, sweet-smelling humus that is excellent for enriching garden and houseplant soil. Compost not only enhances the nutrients in soil, but also gives it a better texture. It loosens heavy clay soils, and increases water retention in sandy soils.
Composting is not a new idea. Scientists speculate that ancient civilizations heaped their food wastes in piles, promoting seed growth of any food plant that was dumped. Compost also happens naturally in nature, leaves pile up on the forest floor and begin to decay. Eventually the rotting leaves are returned to the soil, where living roots can finish the recycling process by reclaiming the nutrients from the decomposed leaves.
It is easy and interesting to learn how to compost and autumn is the perfect time to get started. To make an ideal outdoor environment for the decomposition of yard and kitchen waste, the compost heap should be about 3 x 3 x 3 (1 cubic yard). An outdoor compost pile can be freestanding, sometimes referred to as “open,” caged, or contained in a closed bin. An open compost pile is simply an unenclosed heap of compost materials. A caged heap mostly keeps the pile neat and is easy to make by using 36-inch wide chicken wire. Simply, form a one cubic yard tube with the chicken wire, and set it on the ground. . Closed compost bins help to retain moisture and heat, and also keep out animal pests. For these reasons, a closed bin is the best choice. You can purchase a compost bin at most garden centers or some cities low cost bins as an incentive to recycle. A sunny site with loose soil is an excellent spot to place your open, caged or closed compost bin.
To start your own compost heap, pile up nitrogen-rich material such as grass clippings, leafy prunings, and kitchen scraps. Only use young weeds in your pile, do not use weeds that have set seed or about to set seed. If you have any questions about weeds, just avoid them all together.
Also collect Carbon-rich materials like shredded paper, bits of bark, sawdust, dried fallen leaves, straw, chipped branches, animal fur, lent from the dryer, and coffee filters and grounds.
Avoid animal manures, dairy products, meats, fats, bones and cooked foods, as these smell, attract animal pests, and decompose very slowly. Again, pernicious weeds that are spread by runners and roots, like Bermuda grass, should also be avoided.
Making a compost heap is not an exact science, but “decay organisms” (soil microorganisms – bacteria and fungi) thrive best when put on a diet of about equal parts of high carbon and nitrogen materials. These microorganisms breakdown the pile.
Build your compost heap like a layer cake, one layer green, and the next brown. This will help you estimate the ratio of brown to green materials. Chopping or shredding ingredients into small pieces (3/4-inches is ideal) speeds up the compost process considerably. Water the layers as you go with a watering can. The heap should not be very wet, just damp, about as moist as a wrung out sponge. Continue watering your compost heap when it seems dry, and turn the pile, using a pitchfork, every week or so for the first month. Turning the heap introduces more oxygen, and speeds up decomposition.
When the temperature elevates, everything begins decaying. The maximum temperature, 120F and 160F, is usually attainted in about 2 to 3 weeks. If your heap is not heating up, try adding a nitrogen fertilizer, like chicken manure, to help elevate the temperature and speed up the breakdown process. Garden centers sell “Compost Starter,” which also helps to elevate the temperature of your pile.
You will know when your compost is ready because it will no longer be generating heat. You can even feel the temperature decrease by sticking your hand in the pile. Compost thermometers are the easiest way to get a read on the heat of the heap. Again, finished compost is dark and crumbly and has a pleasant, earthy odor and should be ready to use in about 3 months. Most of the materials will no longer be recognizable, but the outside material may not have decayed as completely as the center of the pile. The coarser materials can be used as mulch or added to your next compost pile. Amend the compost into planting beds, container gardens and houseplants. Once you have had success with your first compost pile, you’ll probably never throw out compost ingredients again.
Turn Your Yard & Kitchen Scraps into Riches for the Garden
Many Counties offer incentives and workshops on composting. Reduced cost compost bins are available.
County Recycling Programs:
Santa Clara County:
Sponsors all composting programs in the County. Holds classes for both adults and children, teaching both Backyard composting and Vermicomposting (composting with worms). 100 free workshops per year, taught by certified and certificated volunteer Master Composters. Next class scheduled Saturday, Nov. 4, 2000, 10am, Campbell Community Center- In addition County teaches annual class to become Master Composters. Earth Machine composter for $37.50 available for all residents. For information and class schedules and pre-registration, call 408-299-4147 or www.ReduceWaste.org.
Palo Alto Recycling Program:
Offers monthly workshops in composting. On completion of the course, participants are given a voucher to purchase the Biostack composter at the County landfill. Price? $27.00, normal retail is $89.00. The next workshop will be held, Tuesday evening, October 10, 2000. For more information and to sign up for a workshop call 650-496-5910.
San Mateo County:
Offers free workshops as part of a bin purchasing process. County offers discounted bins, $35.00, to all San Mateo County residents. Also available, Vermicompositng bin. For more information call 888-442-2666 or www.recycleworks.org.