Although Americans are getting much better at recycling, there’s one thing that we still have a problem with: garbage. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American produces approximately 1,600 pounds of garbage per year. That figure doesn’t even include industrial or commercial waste – only household waste.
While you can decrease your contribution to landfills by using reusable grocery bags, buying products with less packaging, and recycling as much as possible, composting may be the ticket to seriously scaling back how much waste you throw in the garbage.
Making your own compost is the ultimate in recycling; it is nature’s way of turning decomposable organic material into a nutrient rich soil, and it is a great way to divert some (or most) of your household trash away from the landfill.
You can assist nature in the composting process and reap the benefits of it by creating your own compost pile.
Starting a compost heap or installing a compost bin is not as difficult or as problematic as you might think. Within a relatively short amount of time, your garden will benefit from rich, environmentally friendly compost.
If you have a yard, you can fit a compost pile just about anywhere. And if you live in a town or city, don’t fret – you can create a small compost bucket on your deck or patio, or even indoors.
Once your compost is ready, you’ll be able to use it as fertilizer on plants, for your yard, in your garden, or even to sell or give to neighbors.
What do I need to build a compost pile?
You need a compost bin or a designated area to keep your compost contained. This is an important factor, and whether you go for a composting bin or a traditional compost heap is very much a personal decision.
A compost bin is simply a container in which to keep your compostable materials while they break down.
A compost heap is (as the name suggests) nothing more than a pile of compostable material that is usually covered over with card or plastic sheeting and often insulated with straw.
If you want to get fancy, you can use a turning unit to hold your compost, such as a barrel, but keep in mind that turning units cost more and are more labor intensive to put together than other units.
The structure of the bin can be made up of pretty much anything, however you shouldn’t place your compost directly on top of concrete or plastic. Basically, you just want your compost to touch the dirt so that worms can make their way in and help with the composting process.
You should also think about creating a collection point in your kitchen to hold decomposing leftovers and scraps, keeping in mind an infrequently-cleaned container may quickly turn foul. For this reason, it’s recommended you buy a compost container with a carbon filter, which costs only a few dollars more than an old-fashioned bucket. Sizes range anywhere from a half gallon for irregular use, to a full 5 gallon bucket for busy kitchens. A 1.5 gallon container is ideal for a typical family, and shouldn’t need to be emptied more than once a week.
Where should I build my compost heap?
Your compost heap or bin should be in an area which is easy to reach, first and foremost. Keeping it out of sight is a concern for some people, but a compost heap that’s behind a shed or outbuilding may be awkward to get to and discourage you from using it.
The main points in terms of the location are as follows:
- Compost bins or heaps should be in a position which is reached by the sun. The sun provides heat which speeds up the composing process.
- Composts should be tightly covered or have a lid.
- Compost should be kept away from water sources.
What is suitable to add to a compost heap or bin?
The general rule of thumb in terms of compostable materials is that if it once lived, it can go on!
To keep the micro-organisms that will transform your scraps into good soil happy, you need to keep the brown stuff to green stuff ratio.
Green stuff: egg shells, fruit and veggie scraps, moldy bread, fresh grass clippings, weeds
Brown Stuff: wood, leaves, papers, nuts and shells, tea leaves, coffee grounds, dryer lint, pinecones, pine needles
Try to get an equal mixture of “brown and green” materials for your compost.
Never compost nappies or cooked foods. Certain foods will attract pests and so should be avoided. Meat and dairy products in particular are among the biggest attracters of rats and the best waste food products are fruit and vegetable products.
Avoid using pet poo in your compost unless you are only going to be using it on ornamental plants. Never use it on vegetable plants or anything else that you plant to consume or use in some other way.
Getting your compost started
So, how do you start your pile?
Start adding your ingredients to the pile or bin. Make sure any large things are chopped up. If you add anything that’s dry, such as egg shells, dry leaves, pine needles, or cardboard, make sure to add a bit of water. You don’t want to drown the pile, but it won’t work well without some added moisture. Composting in layers of wet and dry can generally keep it pretty moist.
If you are using a container for your compost, you can lay the mix of items on the bottom of it to a depth of about 12 inches and then replace the lid and return whenever you have more materials to add to it. If you are making a compost heap, lay the first layer right down on the earth or turf and then a layer of straw for insulation. Cover tightly with plastic sheeting or plenty of cardboard and return when you have more materials to add to it.
Maintaining and Using Your Compost
In order for a heap to fully mature, you should add to it regularly and ensure that you have a good balance of “greens and browns” to include. Depending on what you add to your pile or bin, your compost could produce useable compost in two months or take as long as six months.
Keeping your compost covered will help, as a cover keeps in heat and moisture. Also, make sure to give it a good stir once in a while – oxygen is an essential ingredient to any compost pile or bin.
Keep an eye on your compost for signs of rodents, but if you avoid cooked foods and the other products mentioned, then they shouldn’t be an issue.
When the bottom of your pile resembles dark, rich soil, it’s ready! Use it in your garden, on your lawn, or on your houseplants. If you have enough compost to go around, neighbors can also use it for their gardens, plants, or lawns. You may even be able to sell it, depending on its quality and your location.
Hopefully, these tips are helpful to get your first compost started. Happy Composting!
Editor’s Note: This is an updated version of an earlier post. It has been edited for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness, and includes contributions from Ant Langston.
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Photo by Joi Ito, via Flickr Creative Commons License