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Composting is the ultimate trash-to-treasure makeover.

Compost bin

Compost bin

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, food scraps and yard waste currently account for 20 to 30 percent of what ends up in U.S. landfills, where it takes up space and releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Composting is nature’s way of recycling those organic materials back into the soil. Compost can enrich soil, suppress plant diseases and reduce the need for chemical fertilizers. Best of all, it’s so easy that nearly anyone can do it.

Location, location, location

Selecting a spot where you’ll compost is task No. 1. Your municipality may have a setback ordinance requiring that composting bins be located a certain distance from property lines; it’s better to check the rules ahead of time than have to move the whole operation later.

The best location will be level with good drainage (standing water will slow the composting process). If possible, you want to choose a shady or partially shady spot near a water source that’s at least three feet wide by three feet deep by three feet high. Avoid areas that are exposed to strong winds, which can dry out the pile. Start on bare earth so worms and other beneficial organisms can easily aerate the compost and be transported to your garden beds.

Ideally, your composting operation will be in a convenient but not easily seen location – after all, who wants a pile of decaying food scraps right next to the back door?

Bin or pile?

Whether you compost in a pile or bin is completely up to you (unless your local ordinances mandate the use of a covered bin). Some composters prefer to use piles that are contained by the use of chicken wire or snow fencing.

Many styles of closed-top bins are available commercially; the real advantage to bins is that their lids can help keep rodents away from decomposing food waste.

Getting started

When starting a compost pile, you’ll want to add materials in thin, even layers – much like you’d make lasagna with layers of pasta, cheese and sauce.

  • The bottom layer is a six to eight-inch layer of organic materials: vegetable scraps, grass clippings, leaves, hay, straw, small twigs less or garden debris.
  • The next layer is made up of one to two inches of animal manure, fertilizer or commercial compost starter. This layer creates the heat within your compost pile and provides a nitrogen source for the microbial community.
  • The top layer – just an inch or two thick – is top soil, plain garden soil or active compost. Don’t use soil that’s been recently treated with insecticides or herbicides.

Continue layering until your pile is three feet high or you run out of material. Add enough water to moisten – but not soak – each layer as it is added. You only have to layer when starting a new pile. Once the pile is active, you can add materials by either burying them in the center or incorporating them when you turn your pile.

What to feed your compost pile

The best compost piles or bins contain a mix of brown and green ingredients, such as straw, hay, grass clippings, vegetable peels, fruit rinds, coffee grounds and filters, bread and grains, whole or chopped leaves and stalks, manure from grazing animals, fireplace ashes, wood chips, sawdust and shredded newspaper or cardboard. Too much green or wet material and it’s likely your pile will get smelly. Too much brown or dry material and the composting process will slow down.

What not to feed your pile

These ingredients should not find their way into your composting pile: meat, bones, seafood scraps, dairy products, eggs, black walnut tree leaves or twigs, coal or charcoal ashes, oily or greasy food or paper, manure some meat-eating animals, herbicide-treated grass or other clippings. Similarly, metal, glass and plastic should be kept out of your compost bin.

Compost care

Every few weeks, you’ll need to use a garden fork or shovel to turn the compost pile. Your goal is to move the material from the center of the pile to the outside and the stuff on the outside of the pile to the center.

Don’t freak out if you see steam rising from the pile. This is actually a sign that the pile is heating up as a result of the materials within it decomposing. Over time, unless you are adding a lot of new material, your pile will decrease in size as it decomposes. If you want to add to your pile, you can do so throughout the growing season and into the winter months. As you add fresh material, you will need to turn and water your pile more often. Continue to turn the pile every few weeks and keep it moist.

Soon, you’ll begin to see earthworms throughout the pile and the center of the pile will turn into crumbly, black compost. This finished compost can be shoveled out for use in your garden.

For additional composting tips, talk to the experts at your local garden center or a cooperative extension service.

Related:

Mary Boone is a freelance writer for Zillow Blog. Read more from her here.

About the Author

Mary was a newspaper writer/editor for 13 years and worked as spokesperson for a Fortune 500 Company before becoming a freelance writer. She has authored more than two dozen books for young readers and writes for a handful of regional home and garden magazines.

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