Compost is a hot topic for good reason: What’s better than turning waste into something beneficial? But before you start throwing food scraps into a pile on your property line, consider these points to ensure success and avoid attracting vermin or straining neighborly relationships.
• Determine your compost-pile goals. Do you just want a place to recycle vegetable scraps, or do you want to create compost to use in your garden? Are you willing to put in time and effort to maintain the pile and wait a couple of years before it’s ready? Knowing your goals will help you choose the best bin/pile design and which materials to add.
• Choose a convenient location because it can determine whether you follow through with composting or give up.
• Understand what’s doing the work. Yes, you may walk a few feet to put that banana peel into the pile, but microorganisms do the real work. Microbes present in compost piles – bacteria, actinomycetes and fungi – and macro-organisms such as worms and insects consume and break down the organic matter to make it ready for our gardens.
• Keep the compost pile moist. Microbes are not active if the pile is completely dry. To test the moisture level – 50 to 60 percent moisture is ideal – take a handful of compost and really squeeze it. A few drops of water should drip out. If that doesn’t happen, adjust your watering schedule to make the pile more or less wet.
• Turn the pile about once a week. Microbes need oxygen to work, and turning the pile speeds decomposition, ensuring that everything you add gets mixed in and broken down. When creating a compost pile, leave space to turn it or move it from bin to bin.
• Expect it to get hot in there. When microbes have a balanced diet, access to oxygen and adequate moisture, the microbial action produces heat, and the pile’s core should heat up. This can help kill off weed seeds and plant pathogens.
• Know your browns-to-greens ratio. “Browns” include dried leaves, dried grass clippings, wood chips, fur, hair and feathers. “Greens” include fresh grass clippings, fruit and vegetable scraps, weeds, manure, fresh hay and coffee grounds. The rule of thumb is to mix two parts browns with one part greens – a ratio based on the relative amount of carbon and nitrogen in the materials.
• Know what to avoid. There’s a huge difference between what you can compost and what you should compost. It’s true that human feces can be composted, but please do not add it to a backyard compost pile! Also do not add dog or cat waste, meat, bones, fat, dairy products, oil, charcoal or fireplace ashes, whole branches or logs, thorny plants or anything treated with pesticides. Unless you know your compost pile will heat up to more than 130° F, also avoid invasive weeds, weeds with lots of seeds and diseased plants.
• If it smells bad, something is wrong. First make sure the compost pile isn’t too wet. If it is, fluff it up to increase airflow and help it to dry a bit. Then make sure you have enough browns. If you don’t, hold back on some greens for a bit, or add more browns to even things out.
• Compost must be fully cured (stabilized) before you use it. If microbes are still breaking down materials within the compost, they’re going to use up any available nutrients for themselves, leaving your newly planted garden starved for nutrients. Once the compost no longer heats up when turned, let it sit for another month to stabilize it. There shouldn’t be any recognizable materials beyond some larger sticks or eggshells, and it should also smell earthy.
Want to learn more? I’ll be giving a presentation on soil and composting the morning of April 27 during the Every Day Is Earth Day Festival at the Kress Pavilion in Egg Harbor. The three-day celebration also includes other presentations, films and exhibitors, all curated to help you make your life more Earth-friendly. Visit kresspavilion.org/eded to read the full details.