My name is Fritz, I work with Veteran Compost (www.veterancompost.com ) and Pam asked me to write a guest column about composting for her Greenily Blog. I think that Greenily is doing a great job challenging folks to live a greener life, and I like her 12 week challenge.
If you are the normal DC Metropolitan Area resident, over 60% of what you put into your garbage is compostable. This includes food scraps, food preparation residuals, food soiled paper products, leaves, grass clippings, brush and tree trimmings. All of this can be removed from the garbage stream and made into a very useful soil amendment. I have been composting since I was a kid in my dad’s garden, I didn’t really know what it was doing, but dad said to do it, so I did. I piled up the grass clippings all summer long, added in the leaves in the fall, watched all of that turn into something brown, and used it in our summer garden.
After working at Veteran Compost, now I know why I was doing what I was doing when I was a kid. Here are some of the lessons that I have learned, and how they can help you further reduce your garbage amount by doing some backyard composting.
What is Compost?
Very simply, compost is normally an organic soil amendment that is a combination of nitrogen rich food scraps and a carbon source. In my compost bins I use the food scraps from my kitchen (except for grains and meats – – they will attract rats in DC and other animals in VA and MD) and wood chips or shredded paper products to make my compost.
It is good for the environment and it is good for your garden or lawn. For the environment, when you take your food scraps and yard waste out of the garbage stream and aerobically (with oxygen) compost them, you are reducing the amount of methane that will be produced. If your food scraps and yard waste go into a landfill, they will break down, but it will be anaerobically (without oxygen) as they are buried. This will produce methane that will leak out of the landfill and go into the atmosphere. Methane is one of the more powerful greenhouse gasses that is commonly produced; it is 30-60 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.
Why Use Compost?
Compost contains a full spectrum of essential plant nutrients.
- Compost contains macro and micronutrients often absent in synthetic fertilizers.
- Compost releases nutrients slowly—over months or years, unlike synthetic fertilizers.
- Compost buffers the soil, neutralizing both acid & alkaline soils, bringing pH levels to the optimum range for nutrient availability to plants.
- Compost helps bind clusters of soil particles, called aggregates, which provide good soil structure. Such soil is full of tiny air channels & pores that hold air, moisture and nutrients.
- Compost helps sandy soil retain water and nutrients. (Most soil in the DC area is a sandy, clay soil)
- Compost loosens tightly bound particles in clay or silt soil so roots can spread, water drain & air penetrate.
- Compost alters soil structure, making it less likely to erode, and prevents soil spattering on plants—spreading disease.
- Compost can hold nutrients tight enough to prevent them from washing out, but loosely enough so plants can take them up as needed.
- Compost makes any soil easier to work.
- Compost brings and feeds diverse life in the soil. These bacteria, fungi, insects, worms and more support healthy plant growth.
Can I Compost In My Backyard?
Sure, I do. Here are a couple of tips. The most important thing is to make sure your recipe stays balanced. Normally you want 1 part greens (food scraps, freshly mowed grass) with 2 parts browns (shredded leaves, wood chips, sawdust, shredded paper products) mixed together with plenty of oxygen. Your food scraps will look moist and runny, don’t sweat it, the browns will soak up that excess moisture.
If you are composting in a composting bin (there are a lot of commercial models available for less than $100) add everything in and give the bin a few tumbles to get air (oxygen) incorporated and everything mixed up. (For more information about bins, check out the factsheet link at the end of the article)
If you are composting in an open area or cage, make sure that your greens are completely covered by your browns. This will keep any odors in and pests out. The best way to do this is to put a layer of browns down on the ground, add a layer of your greens, cover it with a layer of browns and repeat. As your pile reduces through the aerobic activity, you can mix it up to get more oxygen in the pile. (For more information about piles, check out the fact sheet link at the end of the article)
Normally your pile or bin will start to heat up within a few days, and will complete the composting cycle in 6-8 weeks. Keep adding greens and browns in the 2 to 1 ratio as needed, and make sure to get oxygen into the pile by spinning your bin, or turning your pile.
I use 2 bins in my yard, once one is full and cooking, I start to load up the second one.
Experiment around, read about it online (a couple of good sources are listed below) and watch some youtube videos.
How Can I Use Compost?
Use compost all over your garden. You can use it as a top dressing, or under a layer of mulch. I normally pull up my mulch (DC provided wood chips) and add a layer of compost around my plants and trees in the spring and fall, then replace the mulch. When I plant a new bulb or plant, I mix the dirt with compost to give the plant nutrients and to open up the soil around the roots.
Frequent Composting Questions
I normally go to farmer’s markets and garden shows, and I love talking about composting. Here are some of the most common questions I get and some tips.
“I compost at home, but my pile is a stinky mess, what am I doing wrong?”
You’re not doing anything wrong, thanks for composting. Normally when you have a stinky, wet mess, there are two things that might not be going well. First of all, make sure that your bin or pile is getting enough oxygen, that will allow the microorganisms to do their job.
Next, make sure you are adding in the right amount of carbon to your bin or pile. If you are getting an ammonium smell, you need more carbon. You can rarely go wrong by adding more carbon.
You do need some moisture in your pile. You should be able to reach into your pile or bin and grab a handful of compost and not be grossed out by sliminess. If it is too wet, turn it and add more carbon/browns.
“I have been composting, and I see that I have worms in my bin, is that bad?”
Nope, that is great. Worms, red wigglers especially, are one of the best composting tools out there. They do nothing but eat and produce nutrient rich by products (worm poop). If you have worms, you are doing it right.
If you don’t have worms, add some more carbon, and go find some worms. I get most of mine off of the sidewalk after a good rain.
“My compost pile is hot to the touch, is that normal?”
Yes! If your pile or bin is warm, you are doing it right. Normally a well maintained bin or pile will heat up to about 140 degrees, that is the optimal temperature for the microorganisms to do their job, and to kill off any pathogens or weed seed in your bin or pile.
If your compost doesn’t heat up, you may not have enough mass for the process. Add more greens and browns, and, add an extra layer of browns for insulation. You may also need to add some water if things look too dry.
“Can I use newspaper in my compost?”
Yes, shred it though. Most inks these days are soy or water based, they will contain some chemicals and metals, but only a very tiny amount, so tiny it doesn’t register on chemical tests. Don’t worry about it, they are great carbon sources.
“Can I compost my compostable silverware and paper products?”
Sure, but . . . . they will take a long time. There are a lot of food container and flatware products out there that are labelled compostable, which is good. But they are made out of products that have to survive use. Normally they are made of a cornstarch based product (these products look a lot like plastic) or heavier paper. Break them up and experiment, if you are using a small backyard bin, it will take a while for them to break down, you may have to screen them out several times before they eventually break down.
Do you need more information? The easiest and best source of information that I have come across online is from Cornell University:
Cornell University’s home composting fact sheet:
“What if I want to compost, but don’t want to do it in my backyard?”
Call us up, Veteran Compost would be happy to talk to you about how we can help you remove your food scraps from the garbage stream and help the environment.