By: Sara Hettel, Keene State Dietetic Intern
The days are longer, the sun is out and fresh produce abounds! All this heralds the coming of compost season. Home composting is increasing in popularity lately, but starting your own operation can be intimidating. However, it is worth the trouble! Home composting is a great way to give back to the earth and sustainably reuse items that otherwise would remain trash. The earth has taken care of us for so long; it’s time to give something back!
Though composting and its benefits have stepped into the limelight quite recently, the practice of using decayed organic matter as plant fertilizer has been around since ancient times. The earliest record of composting was on clay tablets in Mesopotamia in 2300 BC and from there the practice spread to civilizations in the Mediterranean, Asia, the Americas and Africa! In fact, Native Americans right here in New England were composting by wrapping vegetable seeds to be planted in scraps left over from fish which had been caught. Even George Washington himself was a huge supporter of composting! Clearly these people recognized as an important concept. Composting is an easy way to reduce and recycle food waste, create more nutrient rich soil and help reduce the amount of pests and disease in our gardens
Known as “Black Gold”, compost is filled with micro-organisms and macro-organisms which break down organic material (leaves, twigs, grass, food scraps etc.) into a dark crumbly soil additive. But what exactly are we doing for the earth when we compost? For one, creating your own micro-organism friendly compost heap at home reduces overall food waste which in turn reduces our carbon footprint. Consider that food waste amounted to 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food in 2010 in America alone.
Food breaking down in the landfills generates Methane, a greenhouse gas which is contributing to global warming. Reducing food waste input to landfills is one way to decrease the emission of this gas that’s warming the climate. Pretty “cool” right? Adding compost to soil also helps replenish depleted soils and improves soil health by aiding in moisture retention and suppressing plant diseases and pests which would otherwise be present. Compost is also wildly versatile and can be used for planting new garden beds or lawns, mulch, topdressing for lawns and topsoil for vegetable gardens!
So composting has awesome benefits, but how can you get started?
According to the Washington State Department of Ecology the perfect formula for a compost heap is brown material plus green material plus a little bit of water. “Brown material” refers to carbon rich items such as leaves, dead grass, or dry newspaper. “Green materials” refer to materials high in nitrogen like fruit and vegetable scraps.
4. Top it off with a layer of finished compost or garden soil to inject active soil microbes, you can cover top of compost with a tarp to keep it moist.
5. The compost should then be turned or aerated weekly, allowing the composting microbes to breathe.
Weekly mixing yields the best results. If that seems like too much of a commitment at first, turning the heap a least a couple times a month is acceptable. Turning the heap helps maintain microbe hydration (they need to stay moist), and air flow. You will know the compost is done and ready to use when it has a dark, crumbly texture with a mild odor; this usually takes anywhere between two months to two years.
The next big question, what can you compost?
Well, to keep the microbes in a compost heap happy, include nitrogen rich materials and carbon rich materials. Grass, fresh plant cuttings, fruit and vegetable waste and coffee grounds are examples of nitrogen rich materials and dried leaves, woody materials, straw and cardboard are examples of carbon rich materials. Be sure to avoid garbage, plastic of any sort (Plastic plant pots, plastic plant tabs , plastic bags etc), rock, brick, or masonry, glass or metal, pet waste, diseased plants, animal products. For a more complete list of what can be composted and what cannot, visit the EPA website at https://www.epa.gov/recycle/composting-home
A few last minute tips to consider:
After you have your compost heap up and running, the following strategies will help send you on the path to composting success;
3. Alternate layers of organic materials of different-sized particles within your heap
4. Helpful tools to invest in include pitchforks, square-point shovels or machetes, and water hoses with a spray head
It seems like everywhere we look home composting operations have sprung into existence and are being promoted as the latest and greatest way to take care of the environment. For once, these claims aren’t too far from the truth! Composting helps to reduce our carbon footprint, replenish the nutrients in the soil and grow healthier gardens. This rewarding process is cheap, easy to maintain and simple to get started. Consider adding a compost heap into your life today!