The Basics of Composting
There are many different options for containing your compost. Some people choose to go binless by simply building a compost pile in a convenient spot on the ground. Many other people build bins from materials such as recycled pallets, or two-by-fours and plywood. And there are also many commercial bins on the market which can be very helpful and speed up the composting process.
The use of composting to turn organic wastes into a valuable resource is expanding rapidly in the United States and in other countries, as landfill space becomes scarce and expensive, and as people become more aware of the impacts they have on the environment. While composting has always been around, it is quickly becoming commonplace in both the backyard and on an industrial scale. Many states in the USA have stated goals or legislative mandates to drastically reduce the volume of waste being sent to landfills. Utilizing yard and kitchen wastes (which make up about 30% of the waste stream in the USA is a big part of the plan to minimize waste overall.
You can contribute to the 'composting revolution' by composting your own yard and kitchen wastes at home. If you have a large yard, you might prefer the ease of composting in a three-bin system out by the back fence. Cities and towns can promote composting through home composting education efforts and the collection of yard wastes for large-scale composting. Whatever your style of composting, there's plenty of room to get involved!
How To Compost Composting Bins
What Should You Be Composting?
There are a wide variety of organic items that can be composted to become a valuable soil amendment for home and garden use. Organic waste is the best raw material to make compost from. This can come from your garden, your kitchen and even your home at large. The following items are great items to add to your compost pile:
Browns = High Carbon
Stems and twigs, shredded
Greens = High Nitrogen
It is actually usually easier to leave your grass clippings in the lawn where they will decompose and benefit the soil directly. However, they can be composted if you choose. You should be cautious when adding grass clippings to make sure you add them in very thin layers, or thoroughly mix them in with other compost ingredients so that they do not become slimy and matted down which can exclude air from the pile. Fresh grass clippings are high in nitrogen, making them a 'green' compost ingredient.
Most kitchen waste including fruit and vegetable peels, coffee grounds, eggshells and even tea bags are great for composting. Most kitchen scraps tend to be high in nitrogen which puts them in the 'green' category, and they are usually quite soft and moist. Kitchen wastes need to be mixed in with drier/bulkier materials to allow complete air penetration. It is a good idea to compost your kitchen wastes in enclosed bins or bury them in the soil, to keep from attracting pests to an outdoor compost pile. You may want to avoid composting meat scraps, fatty food wastes, milk products and bones since they are very attractive to pests.
If you live in an area where autumn leaves are still thrown away as garbage, cash in on the bounty each year by acquiring your neighbors' leaves! Generally, leaves are an excellent compost ingredient. They can mat down and exclude air, though, so be sure that any clumps are thoroughly broken up, or that the leaves are only used in very thin layers. Ash and poplar/cottonwood leaves can raise soil pH if used in compost -- this may not be beneficial if your soil is already alkaline, as many soils are in the West (especially in semiarid and arid climates). Dead, dry leaves are in the 'browns' category, while living green leaves contain abundant nitrogen and are considered 'greens'.
Weeds and Garden Waste
Many types of weeds and old garden plants can be composted. However you want to void weeds that have begun to seed since seeds may survive all but the hottest compost piles. You will want to avoid weeds that are 'pernicious weeds' unless they are completely dead, since they can resprout in the compost pile. Green weeds are a 'green', while dead brown weeds are a 'brown'.
Wood Chips and Sawdust
Wood products belong in the 'browns' category since they are fairly low in nitrogen. Some sawdusts, especially from broadleaved/deciduous tress, will break down quickly in an active compost pile. Others, especially those from coniferous trees, will take longer to decay. Stir sawdust thoroughly into the pile or use very thin layers. Coarse wood chips will decay very slowly and are better used as mulch. Be sure not to compost chips or sawdust from any sort of chemically-treated wood as these could be adding toxics like arsenic to your compost.
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Composting Materials to Avoid
Most ashes are safe to mix into your compost pile, but coal ashes are not. They contain sulfur and iron in amounts high enough to damage plants.
Some paper with colored inks, including newsprint, contain heavy metals or other toxic materials and should not be added to the compost pile.
It takes an efficient composting system and ideal conditions that includes extreme heat to destroy many plant diseases. If the disease organisms are not destroyed they can be spread later when the compost is applied. So make sure to avoid questionable plant materials.
Inorganic materials including plastics, glass and metal will not break down. Pressure-treated lumber should also be avoided since it is treated with chemicals that could be toxic in your compost.
Meat, Bones, Fish, Fats, Dairy
These products can "overheat" your compost pile and attract animals so they are best avoided.
Dog or cat droppings contain several disease organisms and can make compost toxic to handle.
Certain lawn and garden chemicals including herbicides and pesticides can withstand the composting process and remain intact in the finished compost. Poisons have no place in the natural micro-community of your compost pile.
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