As the air turns cool and the leaves turn brown, great gardeners' minds turn to thoughts of composting. Composting is an easy way to turn your fruit and vegetable peelings, old leaves, coffee grounds, shredded paper, and other bits and scraps into "gardener's gold"-- rich, organic matter that boosts soil's fertility, moisture control, and structure.
Occurring all the time in nature without any help from us, composting is simply the decaying of plants and animals into soil-like particles. With just a little effort, you can take advantage of nature's process to create your own compost to use in your gardens, at the same time that you save money, reduce waste and fertilizer use, and reduce Summit's cost for garbage disposal.
You can make your own compost bin by using chicken wire or wood, or you can purchase a bin or compost tumbler made of recycled plastic. Looking for super easy? Just select a location in your yard and make a pile.
Successful composting requires three things -- "greens," which provide nitrogen and moisture by breaking down quickly; "browns," which provide carbon by decomposing more slowly; and air, which provides oxygen to the hardworking microbes. Choose a site in your yard that has good drainage, and make your pile or place your compost bin (homemade or purchased) over bare soil.
The trick to successful composting is understanding what can go in the pile and what should be kept out if the pile. Yes to items in the "green" category: vegetable and fruit scraps, grass clippings, flowers, weeds, coffee grounds and filters. Yes to items in the "brown" category: leaves, twigs, hay, straw, shredded paper and cardboard. But No to the following: meat and bones, poultry and fish, fatty food waste, eggs, dairy products, diseased plants, animal feces, and treated wood.
If your goal is to make compost quickly, you can use the layered approach: Start with a bottom layer of brush, twigs, hay or straw in order to maintain aeration. Then add a layer of brown material, followed by a layer of green material. Moisten each layer lightly with a garden hose. Alternate green and brown layers until the bin is full. Turn the pile with a pitchfork every 14 days or so. Depending on how you layer and turn, you should have usable compost within four months to a year.
Seem complicated? Get the compost tumbler and you can just load it up, and give the drum an occasional turn without worrying about layers. Or just load up your regular compost pile with matter as it becomes available, and mix it up occasionally with a pitchfork. Avoid compost odor by adding enough brown composting material to balance wet fruit and vegetable waste. Nature will do the rest.
Finally, enjoy the benefits! Use your rich compost for mulching areas around flowers, vegetables, shrubs, and trees. Condition your soil by mixing compost into it. Make your own potting mix by combining equal parts of compost, sand and soil.
For more information, the Environmental Protection Agency offers detailed suggestions, and National Geographic has a step-by-step article for starting a small compost bin. Or simply print out Summit's handy composting flyer.
Composting is a win-win project, saving money, producing excellent material, and reducing waste. Give it a try!
By Beth Lovejoy, on behalf of the Summit Environmental Commission