Are you looking for a way to reduce your carbon footprint and improve your garden? Composting is a critically important activity that every gardener should practice. It is great for the planet and will have an unmatched affect on your soil and plant health.
What is Composting?
Composting is taking organic matter waste such as produce scraps, coffee grounds, leaves, or grass clippings and putting it into an environment in which it can quickly decompose, leaving you with nutritionally dense soil.
Decomposition is something that happens in nature all the time. Fallen leaves and branches, dead plants, animal carcasses, and animal waste sit on the soil’s surface and, over time, are broken down by worms, insects, fungi, and bacteria until they become part of the soil, feeding future generations of life. This closed-loop system in nature leaves absolutely no waste and each component benefits the others. By composting, we are taking part in this natural cycle, simply at a faster pace.
How Compost Benefits the Planet
Composting is one of the best ways to reduce carbon emissions by converting waste into valuable soil amendments.
It is a common misconception that throwing away food scraps is harmless because they break down quickly (compared to plastic and metal). In reality, when food scraps are tied up into a plastic bag and thrown into a compact landfill, the lack of airflow and water prevents them from decomposing. Instead, they slowly rot and release methane in the process. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide in causing climate change.
This is a needless greenhouse gas emission when all of that organic waste can be composted into rich, useful soil. Having healthy soil also benefits the planet by increasing water retention, sequestering carbon, and reducing erosion into waterways. This means that composting doesn’t just prevent new greenhouse gas emissions, it actually removes greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere.
How Composting Improves Your Garden
Compost is the most important input you should use in your garden. Far more effective than any fertilizer, it provides nutrients, feeds soil life, increases water retention, and improves soil structure. Compost is a vitally important component in healthy soil and should be continually added to your garden to give your soil a boost.
It is a common belief that compost is not needed when gardeners use fertilizers, but fertilizers do not make plants as healthy as they look. The instant boost of nutrients that fertilizers add disrupts the plants’ relationship with the mycorrhizal fungi and causes them to be very dependent on the fertilizers. It gives them lush foliage and a high rate of fruiting, but they are not healthy in a deeper sense. They cannot “ask” microbes for the nutrients they need and they cannot fight pests and unfavorable conditions the way they should. Fertilizers are a short-term solution, but eventually, even they stop working. Compost is a long-term investment in your soil health and your plants will be just as productive and even more healthy than if you used fertilizers.
Basic Needs for a Compost Pile
There are a variety of composting bins on the market that make it easier to turn, extract finished compost, and more. A container is exactly “needed;” if you toss all of your compost into a big pile in the corning of your yard, it would eventually break down. Containing it does keep the mess contained and the critters out. Compost bins also help the scraps break down faster by raising the temperature of the pile. Backyard composting can be done in a plastic composting container, a turning compost container, a wooden crate-style composter, or even just a wire enclosure. The bin doesn’t need to be anywhere specific in your yard, though the more sun it gets, the faster it will break down. Proximity to the hose and the kitchen are also good considerations when choosing your location. If done properly, a compost pile will not smell bad.
Brown and Green Inputs
You can’t just throw in your food scraps and leave them to break down. Compost needs a mix of “greens” such as kitchen food scraps and fresh grass clippings and “browns” such as dried leaves, dried grass clippings, or unbleached paper. The greens provide nitrogen to the compost and the browns provide carbon. There should be about a 50/50 balance of greens to browns. If you have too many greens, your compost pile will smell bad and not decompose well. We keep a trash bin full of dried leaves next to the compost so every time we make a deposit of greens, we can add browns on top of it.
The compost also needs water to effectively decompose. Just like any other organism, the life that inhabits your compost pile and eats the decaying matter needs water to survive. Water also helps regulate the temperature of your compost pile, ensuring everything breaks down evenly. Both too little water and too much water can delay or halt decomposition. The correct amount is between 40 and 60 percent water, according to the University of Illinois Extension.
As you’re turning the compost, pay attention to the moisture level. If it looks drenched and water could be wrung out of it, you’re adding too much water. If it looks visibly dry, give it a good soak. This doesn’t have to be exact; just be mindful of how it’s looking and be flexible to adjust based on your observations.
The last basic need of a compost bin is air. Air is essential for the decomposition process. In fact, when a compost bin is smelly, rotten, and slimy, we say it is “anaerobic.” Most compost bins do allow some air to travel through the compost with vents or an open-top, but the compost will be healthier and break down faster if turned regularly. You can turn your compost pile using a compost aerator. You should do this every 2-4 weeks.
What Can Be Composted
- Anything that came directly from produce, such as carrot tops, potato peels, rotten fruit, banana peels, or cabbage leaves
- Eggshells, though I do recommend breaking them up as much as possible so they break down faster
- Coffee grounds
- Unbleached paper, like brown paper bags
- Grass clippings*
- Raked leaves*
- Spent plants, chopped up into small pieces**
*Only compost these materials if you keep an organic yard. Conventional herbicides and pesticides that are used on your lawn or surrounding areas may be present on these materials and will damage your soil health and possibly kill your plants.
** With a simple backyard compost, it is best to avoid putting anything with diseases in the bin. Your compost may not get hot enough to kill the disease and you could have an even bigger problem next year. I don’t worry too much if there is just a touch of something, but if you have a huge tomato disease issue as I do, avoid putting the tomato plants in the compost.
What to Avoid Putting in The Compost
- Any oil or vegetables covered in oil
- Any animal products other than eggshells; this includes meat, the insides of eggs, and dairy products
- Weeds that have gone to seed
- Dog or cat waste
- Teabags (Unless you can verify that they don’t have glue or plastic content in the bag)
Composting Is Easier Than It Seems
Many new gardeners get intimidated by composting, but it really is very forgiving! Give it a try and be willing to adjust as you go along. If you ever have questions or need someone to troubleshoot, I’m always happy to help!