The Rewards of Composting

Our founding fathers were onto something

After learning from Andrea Wulf’s book Founding Gardeners that several of our founding fathers were obsessed with manure, I felt like my own compost-making efforts suddenly became elevated to a nobler pursuit. Every gardener—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Adams included—knows that healthy gardens start with good soil. I recently harvested my summer crop of compost, so I’ll have plenty of nutrient-rich material to work into my garden throughout the fall planting season.

Since most households don’t have a supply of cow manure on hand these days, it’s quite easy to make your own compost with yard and kitchen waste. If you aren’t composting, you are missing out on an easy and organic method to improve the quality of your soil. I also get a kick out of making something valuable from stuff most people throw away.

Although there’s plenty of science behind composting, I’ll keep my advice very simple. On a basic level, all you are trying to achieve is to get a pile of plant matter to decompose, and nature does most of the work for you.

Step 1: Combine green with brown. Green material includes plant matter that is still fresh, such as plant trimmings and grass clippings. Brown material includes plant matter that has died, such as dried leaves and pine needles. If you like, you can stop there and only compost yard waste.

However, if you want to give your compost a major nutrient boost, add fruit and vegetable scraps from your kitchen. You don’t need a fancy container to collect scraps—any plastic container with a sealing lid will do. I use two containers and rotate them between collection duty and the dishwasher.

With kitchen waste, follow a simple rule of thumb. If it came from a plant, throw it in—stalks, husks, cores, peels, rinds, seeds, flowers, coffee grounds and tea bags are all fine. If it came from an animal, leave it out—no dairy products, meat, fat, bones or pet waste. (Of course, there are exceptions to these rules, but for simplicity’s sake, I won’t get into them now.)

In the yard waste category, I recommend leaving out large sticks, branches and thick roots and vines because they take a long time to decompose. Also leave out weeds to prevent the seeds from dispersing through your compost.

Step 2: Choose a location. Find a concealed spot away from your home. Sunlight is preferable because heat speeds decomposition, but shade is fine, too. You don’t need to have a large yard, either. I live in an urban neighborhood, and my compost piles are hidden behind a bush in a shady corner of my little backyard.

Step 3: Choose a container. There are many types of composters available, but you don’t need to spend money on them unless you want to. I have always kept my compost in open piles. However, if you think pets or wildlife will get into your compost, you may want to take steps to secure it from curious furry critters.

One simple option is to make a pen with wire screen or fencing material attached to four posts secured in the ground. You could add a lid if you like. Another inexpensive option is to buy a round, plastic trashcan with a locking lid. Using a power drill, make small holes in the bottom, top and sides. No matter which containment method you choose, the idea is that the compost should get air and water and allow beneficial bacteria, worms and insects to pass in and out. I also recommend having two (or more) containers or piles so that you can let one fully decompose while you add material to the other.

Step 4: Turn your compost pile occasionally. You’ll notice that most of the decomposition takes place in the middle and bottom of the pile, so you’ll help the process along by mixing up the pile with a shovel or pitchfork. If you opted for the trashcan method, you can roll it around on the ground to turn the compost.

Step 5: Keep it moist. Water will help your compost pile decompose. Rain should provide enough moisture, but sprinkle it occasionally during dry spells. Since air aids decomposition, you don’t want it to stay soaking wet all of the time.

Step 6: Let nature take its course! You really can’t go wrong with composting. Plant matter will rot on its own; your role is to facilitate the process. As the weather warms up in late spring or early summer, I start a new compost pile and let the older one fully decompose. By early fall, the older pile is ready. You can tell because it starts to look like a pile of dirt.

If you’re concerned about attracting insects, remember that a compost pile is a perpetual all-you-can-eat buffet, so they would be unlikely to leave the feast to invade your house. The insects and worms within the pile help break it down into nutrients that can be absorbed by plants. However, to keep flies away from an open compost pile, make sure that kitchen waste is buried well within the pile. Keep a shovel or hand trowel nearby for the task.

If you want to get really fancy, you can sift the compost to remove anything that hasn’t decomposed. (This step is completely optional; having chunky compost is perfectly acceptable.) I fold the ends of a piece of half-inch wire screen placed over a wide-mouth pot. Put a shovel or two of compost on top of the screen and shake. The dirt will fall through while anything that hasn’t fully decomposed (sticks, mulch, rocks, etc.) will remain on top. I throw the rocks into my gravel alley and put the reusable mulch under a bush.

Work your finished compost into the soil when planting, fill outdoor flowerpots with it or sprinkle it on your lawn. Although you can start composting any time of year, fall offers plenty of material to get your compost started with all of the trimming and leaf raking ahead.

Between recycling and composting, our typical household trash is down to one or two little plastic grocery bags per week. I hope that one day everything will be reusable, recyclable or compostable, and trash collection and landfills will become a thing of the past. What if every household composted, and kitchen and yard waste from businesses and apartments was collected for farms or municipalities to compost, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers that pollute our waterways? If our manure-obsessed founding fathers were alive today, that’s an idea they would probably get excited about.

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