A Practical Guide to Composting
Pick the Best Option for You
Yard and food waste make up 25 percent of the garbage destined for municipal landfills, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Pick the right composter and this organic waste will easily turn into rich—and free—garden fertilizer, saving landfill space and reducing the volume of greenhouse gases generated by anaerobic decomposition.
Unless using a specialized bin, maintain a roughly 50/50 compost mixture of “brown” and “green” organic waste for ideal results. Green waste is moist, such as fruit and vegetable peels; brown waste comprises dry and papery material, including grass clippings.
Good for: People that want something simple, don’t need fertilizer immediately and have extra outdoor space; average to large households with yard waste.
Maintaining a compost pile is as easy as its name implies—simply toss organic yard and kitchen waste into a pile in the yard. Aerating or turning the compost with a pitchfork or shovel will provide quicker results, but waste will also decompose if left alone. Within six to 24 months, all of the waste will decompose aerobically into compost. Once a year, composters can dig out the finished compost from the bottom. This method won’t work for households that don’t generate yard waste because a pile of 100 percent green waste will attract pests.
Good for: People that want a low-maintenance option that’s more attractive than a pile; average to large households with yard waste.
Make a bin out of wood or buy a plastic holding bin, which can contain up to 75 gallons. One with insulated sides may allow decomposing to continue in colder weather.
Good for: People that want quick results and can compost in smaller batches; small to average households with yard waste.
These barrel-shaped containers are turned with a hand crank, making aerating and speeding up decomposition a breeze. Some manufacturers promise results in as little as two weeks.
Due to the barrel’s relatively smaller size and capacity, getting the balance between brown and green waste right is critical for optimal results, and users will need to wait for one batch of compost to finish before adding more organic waste.
Good for: People looking for low maintenance, but quicker results than a pile or bin; average to large households with yard waste.
Multi-tiered composters are a series of stacked boxes with removable panels to allow the organic waste to move downward throughout the decomposition cycle. Finished compost comes out of a door at the bottom.
Because the boxes are smaller than a large pile or bin, compost will “cook” faster; some users report their first batch took just four to six months. Collectively, stacked boxes are often comparable in size to a large holding bin, so they can compost a large amount of waste.
• Fruit and vegetable scraps
• Grass clippings, twigs, leaves and wood chips
• Eggshells (broken into small pieces)
• Coffee grounds and tea bags
• Unbleached coffee filters, paper and cardboard
• Pet waste
• Meat and dairy (except in Green Cone device)
Good for: People that want to compost indoors; apartment dwellers and small households that don’t generate yard waste.
For everyone that has wanted to compost, but had insufficient outdoor space, a five-or-10-gallon bucket and some red worms could be the answer. Worm composting, or vermicomposting, is so compact that a worm bin can fit under most kitchen sinks. Because red worms are so efficient—each pound of them will process half a pound of food scraps daily—a worm bin doesn’t need aeration and won’t smell or attract pests. Note that worms won’t process brown waste, meat, dairy or fatty foods.
Good for: People that just want to dump their kitchen waste and be done with it; those that want to compost fish or meat; households that don’t generate yard waste.
Solarcone Inc.’s Green Cone system will handle up to two pounds of kitchen waste daily, including meat, fish and dairy products. It won’t compost brown waste. Users bury the bottom basket in the yard, and then simply put green waste together with an “accelerator powder” into a cone hole in the top. According to Solarcone, most of the waste turns into water. Every few years, users need to dig a small amount of residue out of the bottom that can be added to a garden.
Tracy Fernandez Rysavy is editor-in-chief of the nonprofit Green America’s Green American magazine, from which this article was adapted (GreenAmerica.org).
BASIC COMPOSTING TIPS
by Tracy Fernandez Rysavy
Ensure that the compost pile retains a moisture content similar to a wrung-out sponge. To moisten, add green waste; to reduce moisture, add brown waste.
Turn compost to get air to the aerobic bacteria and speed the process. Wear gloves and a dust mask to protect against allergens.
Decay generates heat, so a pile should feel warm. If not, add green waste. Decomposition occurs most efficiently when it’s 104 to 131 degrees Fahrenheit inside the pile; use a compost thermometer.
Keep a small container in the kitchen to easily collect green food scraps. Store it in the freezer to keep unpleasant smells and flies at bay.
The best time to start composting is during warmer months. Alternately layering green and brown waste, using the “lasagna method” in colder months, readies the pile to decompose as soon as the weather warms. Consider stockpiling summer yard waste ingredients.
Be aware that low-maintenance composting won’t kill weed seeds, which can then get spread around the garden. A highly managed compost pile will kill some weeds through the generated heat. Put weeds out for municipal yard waste collection where there’s a better chance they’ll be destroyed.
Contributing sources: U.S Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Composting Council