Growing together through social change
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how to re-purpose garbage

by: juliette cowall

Summer is almost over, and some gardeners might think it’s too late to start composting. Not true! Compost can be started at any time, in any weather. It might “work” slower in colder weather, but that’s only because many, not all, of the microorganisms doing the work are dormant.

What is Compost?

At its most basic, compost is the material left over when organic matter decomposes. So, anything that lives eventually dies and it rots. Compost is never recognizable as anything other than soil. If we can identify a banana peel or eggshell or other organic matter, it has not completed the transformation to compost.

Compost is made up of billions of microorganisms that work together to create a community. Some are more active during earlier stages of decomposition, others take over later. For example, thermophilic bacteria generate the “heat” that is often associated with an active pile. In addition to microorganisms, other insects and beetles, and worms and so on are also at work. It’s a community.

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Why Compost?

There are many benefits, and no downsides, to composting: Keeps material out of landfills, reduces water use, gets us moving, and many others. The primary reason that I compost is the health of plants. Balanced compost gives plants all the nutrients they need to thrive. It’s like, when we humans get a balanced diet, we don’t need supplements. The same is true for plants. When they get all the nutrients they need from compost, we don’t have to spend money on fertilizer that may or may not have the elements that the plants are lacking.

What Goes Into Compost?

The microorganisms in any decaying matter have specific “nutritional needs,” just like humans. They need water and air, like we do, and they have two “food groups”: green (nitrogen) and brown (carbon). Like our “green” food, the organisms get a lot of their water from the green food group. This group includes material that we can think of as “wet,” such as coffee grounds, apple cores, vegetable “leftovers,” grass clippings, among many other things. “Brown” examples are sawdust, shredded paper, dried leaves, and other organic matter.

Leaves are a great example of both green and brown sources, depending on where they are in their life cycle. When they come off a tree (or are trimmed) while they’re green, they’re full of nitrogen. When we’re raking the dried, brown leaves in the fall, they’re a carbon source.

Our compost pile should get a balanced diet of those sources. Literally, a 1:1 ratio by weight is best. Because we know that the dry material weighs less, the ideal compost pile looks as if it has about two times as much brown material. There’s no need to get caught up in the numbers; like all organisms, they’ll adapt within a reasonable range.

Water is also a need for our compost pile. Again, not too little, not too much. Just like soil, if we squeeze a clump and it drips, it’s too wet. If it crumbles into dust, it’s too dry.

Although air is last, it’s also the most overlooked element for a successful compost pile. The microorganisms need oxygen. While they’re working and breaking down our garbage, they’re also reproducing, and it gets tight in there after 7-10 days. They run out of air and slow down. The timing is also convenient since it takes most households 7-10 days to generate enough material to add to the pile - or we just don’t want to do it more often than that! Either way, when we add new material, we should be stirring things up to get more air flow through it.


Where to Compost?

Again, it’s organic matter, and it’s going to break down anyway, so it doesn’t really matter. But there are things we do to hasten the process, and siting it is one.

  • Out of the way. There are plenty of things in our garden that deserve a prominent space - our compost pile is not one of them.

  • We want a shaded area so it doesn’t dry out. (“Heat” doesn’t come from the sun; it comes from our thermophilic bacteria.)

  • At least 10 feet from any wooden structure. It’s extremely rare, especially in a residential setting, but spontaneous combusting of compost piles has been documented.

  • In contact with the ground. The worms and other creepy-crawlies in soil are beneficial to our compost. We don’t want to impede their work by putting a cement or other slab between them and our compost.

Final Thoughts

You can’t fail. The absolute worst that will happen is that it’ll take longer to decompose. It’s a natural process, and it will happen no matter what you do. It’s foolproof. You can start and stop when you want. You can’t fail, because Mother Nature has your back.

Trust yourself. You know your garden better than anyone. You know if there’s been a lot of rainfall or if you’ve put more of something in the pile. You know how often you’ve been turning it. You know more about your compost pile than anyone. Trust yourself to find a solution.

Juliette Cowall has been a Master Composter since 2007.