The following is a contribution from Chris Long of Home Depot. As a Chicago area Home Depot sales associate, he likes to share his knowledge about lawn care and gardening projects and often publishes articles on the Home Depot blog. Chris also likes to share tips on sustainable living topics, such as, raised bed gardening and composting.
Composting is a bedrock of green living — after all, understanding our connection to the planet begins with what we eat, and recycling our food waste into soil completes that loop. Compost can be used to grow new vegetables in our garden, or to clean the air with houseplants at home.
But many otherwise green-minded folks skip this important step, mainly because of the ‘ew’ factor.
Fortunately, composting doesn’t have to stink. This seems counterintuitive to what we know about rotting fruits and vegetables – especially those that we find under the car seat while digging around for “whatever that smell is” – but there are actually quite a few ways to create rich compost from kitchen leftovers without worrying about the smell factor. And it’s easy enough that first time composters can turn out a useful product perfect for potted plants or raised bed gardens on their first rounds.
Another myth is that composting needs a big backyard area in order to break down properly. In fact, composting can be done in relatively small spaces. Before you start saving up those banana peels and egg shells for your first composting batch, however, keep the following composting 101 facts in mind:
- For proper composting to occur, you need a balance of 1 part green compost to 2 parts brown compost.
- Green compost: all those scraps of produce, egg shells, and coffee grounds from the kitchen as well as plant clippings and grass cuttings. Greens are rich in nitrogen.
- Brown compost: dry leaves, paper, paper towels, cereal box-type cardboard, lint, hair from your brush and any other dry, compostable material. Browns are rich in carbon.
TIP: What’s that smell? One of the main reasons compost bins stink it because of an improper balance of brown to green compost. If your bin is starting to emanate some foul odors, pitch in some brown compost and turn the pile so it mixes in.
- Take a turn! Every time you add a new batch of compost, turn it over so that it mixes with the current pile. This allows the bacteria already present to get to work on your new additions, as well as even out the moisture content.
- Damp compost is happy compost. It’s the same recipe for keeping a happy houseplant: not too wet and not too dry. If your pile is soggy, turn it and let it air out for a bit. If it’s dry, hit it with a bit of water and stir it in.
Starting a Compost Bin
Choosing a composting method starts with determining how much space you’re willing to dedicate to the process. Any composting method will require two stages: collection and decomposition. For this reason, most composters choose to have duplicates of their process; one for their current compost collection and one that’s going through the breakdown process.
Setting the stage for composting
Even if you’re limited to a backyard the size of a postage stamp or an apartment balcony, you can still create an outdoor compost bin to handle the second stage of composting: decomposition. You can use a number of items for this process:
- A 3′ x 3′ holding container made of non-pressure treated wood framing and chicken wire or hardware cloth.
- Used pallets can be fashioned into a three-sided frame to hold the compost materials. You can use gate hardware to make a door at the front for easy access.
- There are a wide variety of ready-made compost bins and tumblers available. Almost any container that is vented to let air circulate and has a drain to allow excess water out will work as a compost bin.
- A simple hole in the ground will also work if you turn the pile fairly often to balance moisture levels and keep it aerated.
Collect your kitchen waste and other compostable materials in a container that you don’t mind keeping around the kitchen. There are a number of products out there, but the key to keeping a scentless collection bin is having a container that closes. Empty it out frequently into your compost bin, adding some brown material with it if possible.
Depending on the size of your pile, decomposition can take anywhere from 8 weeks (small bucket) to 1 year (3′ x 3′ holding container). The better the balance of materials, moisture and aeration, the faster composting will occur. Once the material has broken down to a dark, homogenous soil, it’s ready for anything from raised bed gardens to brightening up your lawn to nourishing your indoor potted plants.
In the end, composting is a natural process. You really don’t need a bunch of complicated gadgets, specific schedules and fancy fertilizers to make it happen. By following the basic rules of a healthy compost bin you can have your own supply of rich, hearty soil while cutting down on the overload at your local landfill.