Reduce, reuse, recycle. Nothing better demonstrates this mantra than the garden compost pile. Composting kitchen scraps and garden waste reduces the amount of trash that ends up in the local landfill and reuses and recycles these materials into a potent fertilizer that does wonders for the family garden. It’s easy to start composting; simply set aside a section of your yard with chicken wire and start filling the area with your kitchen scraps, grass clippings and other yard waste or purchase a compost bin or drum if you don’t want or have the room for a standing compost pile. Over time, the materials that you collect will “cook” together into a potent humus mixture that fertilizes your garden naturally-and without harmful chemicals.
What is compost made of?
According to Ed Begley, Jr. in his book Living Like Ed: A Guide to the Eco-Friendly Life. New York: Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 2008, the best compost mixture is composed of one half green matter and one half brown matter. Nitrogen-rich green matter includes green grass clippings, green plant matter and green table scraps. Carbon-rich brown matter consists of wilted or brown grass and plants, brown leaves, pine needles, straw and shredded paper. (Shredded newspaper is also acceptable.) Other compost bin-acceptable materials include tea bags, coffee grounds and filters, eggshells and dryer lint. (However, try not to include twigs and branches with your compost materials. Due to their larger size, they will slow the composting process down.)
Managing your compost pile.
Turn the mixture from time to time, either with a spade if you have a bin or pile, or by turning the drum, and be sure to keep the mixture moist. The materials will gradually break down into a compost matter that contains just the right carbon to nitrogen ratio for highly potent fertilizer. Ed cautions that, whatever you do, do not add animal matter like meat or bones or animal waste. Animal waste from carnivores like domestic cats and dogs contains bacteria and other substances that should not be in the future fertilizer for your food. However, waste from herbivorous animals like rabbits, horses and cows is perfectly acceptable.
You should also avoid adding meat, dairy, fish and fatty kitchen waste like butter and grease to your compost. These items attract raccoons and rats and also emit a strong putrid odor as they break down. It’s best to confine them to the trash.
The decomposition process.
Decomposition occurs naturally when trees shed their leaves or vegetables and plants die at the end of the growing season. Dead and dying plant matter supports the cycle of life by returning its nutrients to the soil. The process of turning decomposed matter into compost requires oxygen and organisms like microbes, bacteria, fungi and insects to break it down. Earthworms are particularly valuable to this process.
When winter arrives.
What happens to this process during the cold winter months typical of the northern United States and Canada? Compost needs to stay hot in order to decompose. In freezing climates, the composting process will go dormant during the winter months, even if you place your pile, bin or drum in direct sun. (Having your compost in the sun will hasten the warming process in the spring, however.) You certainly can continue adding scraps to your compost during the winter; it just won’t decompose until warmer weather arrives. Cold weather prevents your scraps from smelling.
Another option (if you have a compost pile versus bin or drum) is to place your scraps in a covered waste can for the winter and empty the scraps into your compost in the spring. This system works well if your compost pile is completely frozen over.
Don’t stop now!
There’s no need to stop composting just because there’s snow on the ground! The process may slow or stop entirely for a few months but will begin anew when spring returns. Composting reaps rewards for you when you enjoy the products of your garden and reaps rewards for the earth by keeping your scraps and waste from gathering in a landfill. It’s a win-win situation all around.
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