What Is Composting and Does It Really Work?

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Benefits of Composting

Composting is the natural process of breaking down organic waste such as leaves, grass trimmings, and food waste into an incredibly useful substance that acts as mulch, fertilizer, and soil all in one.

Backyard composting is extremely beneficial, helping to reduce 30% of the waste flow to landfills and water treatment facilities. While reducing waste, composting also reduces pests (if done correctly), and adds beneficial organisms and moisture back into the soil.

Composting acts as a slow release of nutrients, not only to help plants grow stronger and healthier, but also to turn imbalanced, sandy and or clay soils into healthy gardening options. Its water-retention capabilities and nutrient-rich properties make compost an excellent addition to any garden, big or small.

Building a Composting Pile

Location is not as important as the materials and maintenance of the composting pile, but there are a few key factors to keep in mind. While the pile or compost bin can be located in sun or shade—it’s the microbes, not the sun, that heat the pile—it should be easily accessible for both the watering and turning of the pile. One aspect to keep in mind when choosing a location is to find a level, well-drained surface that is minimally a few feet away from a structure to allow proper airflow.

Since the ideal temperature is between 105°F and 150°F, piles can neither be too big nor too small. The perfect size, however, is about 3’ x 3’ x 3’ (1 cubic meter). If the compost pile is smaller, it is harder for the pile to heat up. Because of this, the composting will take much longer.

Small piles also have a tendency to dry out quicker if the weather is hotter out, and the composting pile can collapse on itself if too wet, depriving the pile of necessary oxygen. If the pile is too large, it can heat up too much, killing the microbes – composting piles that are too large are also harder to aerate and to turn.
composting pile

Materials Used in Composting

Adding approximately 60% browns (carbon-rich ingredients) and 40% greens (nitrogen-rich ingredients) to your composting pile will help facilitate the decomposition process. Browns include items such as leaves, straw, newspaper, yard waste cut into small pieces, and dried grasses. Greens include fresh grass clippings, food waste (i.e. fruits, vegetables, egg shells, coffee grounds), manure from herbivores (not cats or dogs), and blood meal. When adding food waste, it is important to remember to bury it within the pile, making sure it is completely covered to avoid attracting rodents and other pests.

The nitrogen is necessary to help the microbes increase the heat in the composting pile. If there is too little nitrogen, the pile will not heat and the compost will take longer to form; too much nitrogen, and the microbes cannot handle it. Remember, the smaller pieces provide more surface area for the microbes to break down the materials faster.

While organic waste is good and essential for composting, some materials should not be added. Meat, bones, and fatty foods top the list as they can leave harmful bacteria in the compost. Similarly, animal waste from dogs and cats is inadvisable as it has the potential to infect the soil with various parasites and diseases that are harmful to humans.

Maintenance of Your Composting Pile

Equally important to the materials in the pile is the maintenance of your composting pile. Composting requires oxygen; without oxygen, the microbes cannot break down the organic matter as easily. When this happens, everything decomposes more slowly, creating a dense, slimy pile that is also likely to smell bad. Turning the composting pile, however, aerates it and allows sufficient oxygen to move throughout the material. Also, turning the pile helps to mix the decaying matter, distributing the microbes throughout.

Too much moisture can also deplete the oxygen that’s necessary in your composting pile. When the mixture is too wet, it becomes dense and condenses on itself, leaving no room for oxygen. Alternately, when there is too little water, the microbes die off, leaving your compost unbroken down.

Using the Compost

When the compost is finished, the material in the pile will be a dark brown. It is ideal to use as a soil conditioner as it helps clay soils to be better aerated, and sandy soils to hold water better. It can also be used as mulch or as a nourishing aid for ailing plants. Regardless of where you choose to use it, composting is beneficial for both humans and plants, helping to create a healthier environment where you live.

Video on How to Compost in Your Yard

[Photos Via: Aggie Horticulture; Static1; Grist]

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