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Composting 101

Forget all of David Letterman’s jokes about compost tumblers. You don’t have to buy any fancy equipment or have a Ph.D. in horticulture to create a rich compost heap!

Not only is compost a completely free and wildly rich fertilizer for your flowers, but it reduces yard waste in landfills. Yard waste can make up a whopping 20 percent of all landfill waste. That’s nearly one-fourth! Landfills receive approximately one million tons of yard waste annually. One household can generate 200 pounds of leaves, 1,000 pounds of grass clippings and 300 pounds of trimmings and brush in one year. Since yard waste is completely reusable, some communities have even banned yard waste from landfills to save landfill space and life span.

You can leave grass clippings on the lawn. And you can use a wood chipper to turn brush, limbs and trimmings into mulch. It’s free! For what’s left over, you can mix it with fresh fruit and vegetable scraps from the kitchen to create rich compost for fertilizing your plants.

You can buy or build a compost bin if you want to. But you can also just create a compost pile, which takes almost zero effort and costs zero dollars. Some people dig a wide, shallow hole for their compost pile. If you opt for this route, be sure there are no buried underground cables before you dig; call the utility line locating service in your area first. If you have a city lot, you can place your compost pile in your utility easement or near your alley to retain more yard space and aesthetics.

Here’s a super easy composting recipe:

  • 3 parts brown: dry leaves, dry grass clippings, pieces of small brush and twigs.
  • 2 parts green: fresh fruit and vegetable scraps, fresh grass clippings, flower and shrub trimmings, young weeds
  • 1 dash of soil

The brown components are a carbon source. And the green components are a nitrogen source. And that’s as scientifically complicated as it’s going to get! You don’t even have to memorize it!

Mix all the ingredients, and moisten them just the slightest bit with a fine mist from a garden hose. If the materials in your compost pile don’t look like they’ve started to decompose a little bit within one week, then add some more green materials. This decomposing process is called “heating” or “warming up.” That’s because the temperature of the compost heap will literally increase as the materials decompose.

Here are some basic reminders for compost materials:

Yes

  • Fresh fruit and vegetable scraps, cores, peels and rinds
  • Eggshells
  • Fresh grass clippings
  • Young weeds
  • Garden trimmings from flowers or shrubs (stems, small limbs, flowers, etc.)

No

  • Canned or frozen fruits and vegetables
  • Salad dressing
  • Meat
  • Bread
  • Any processed food of any kind

Think about it this way: if it came directly from the Earth, it can go back to the Earth. Leftover mashed potatoes? No, because they contain milk and butter. Potato peels? Yes. Apple pie? No, because it contains a flour crust, sugar and butter. Apple cores? Yes. Leftover salad with dressing on it? No, because of the dressing. Some wilted pieces of lettuce that aren’t good enough to eat? Yes.

Note that banana peels, avocado peels and seeds, pineapple skins and eggshells take a long time to decompose. So if you’re digging through your compost for some rich content to put on your flowers, you might have to dig out these materials and put them back in the compost pile. But some gardeners like to put eggshells on their roses.

You should mix the compost pile about once a week. It’s best to use a long-handled garden implement, such as a hoe or a pitchfork. You can add materials as often as necessary--after mowing the lawn, raking leaves, or after collecting a week’s worth of fresh fruit and vegetable scraps.

You can collect fresh fruit and vegetable scraps right in the kitchen with a specially designated container. You won’t want to use the container for anything else, as it will get smelly! You can use a medium-sized plastic container with a lid. Or you can use several slightly smaller containers, such as leftover tall yogurt containers. These can be kept in your pantry or under the sink. You can also purchase a more decorative enamel composting pot if you prefer to keep it on the counter. Regardless of what type of container you use, you definitely want to keep the lid on to reduce smell! And you’ll want to empty it into the compost pile once a week; doing it when you take out the trash is an easy way to remember.

All compost piles are a little stinky, but that’s simply because the materials are doing their very productive job of decomposing. But if your compost pile gets really stinky, as in the neighbors are calling the Board of Health, then add more brown materials.

After a while, you’ll notice that portions of the compost heap, especially toward the bottom, have transformed into a rich, dark type of soil that looks like moist chocolate cake mix. But don’t eat it--it would not taste like chocolate! But your flowers would absolutely love a taste. Scoop some of this rich fertilizer into a small bucket, and tamp some around the base of your flowers. Your flowers will just love the nutrients.

So now you’re a master composter, and you didn’t even have to purchase special equipment or get a degree. You know what they say--compost happens!





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