What is composting?

Composting is the natural decomposition of organic materials such as leaves, straw, and food scraps.  Materials are typically heaped on a pile, which allows microorganisms to break them down over time.

Why should I compost?

The benefits of composting are 3-fold.

  1. Composting reduces the volume of municipal solid waste that ends up in the county landfill.
  2. Compost can improve soil quality by improving aeration, increasing drainage, suppressing weeds, and controlling soil erosion.
  3. Compost that is applied in gardens, flower beds, and lawns can supply valuable soil nutrients and result in less fertilizer use.

How do I get started with composting?

Step 1: Make a plan

Before getting started with composting, several decisions must be made.  First, a suitable location for the compost must be found.  Ideally, this will be a conveniently accessible but somewhat hidden part of the yard.  Locations that are shaded and out of the wind are preferred over locations with full sun.  Next, the type of compost pile must be determined.  Several types of compost piles can be successful, each with their own advantages and disadvantages.

  Name Advantages Disadvantages

Simple Heap

No cost

Easy to provide aeration

Can quickly attract animals and become messy

Closed Bin

(may be constructed from pallets, fence, or other materials)

Low cost

Looks neat

Difficult to access and provide aeration

Open Bin

(often constructed of cement blocks or wooden boards)

Easy to access and provide aeration

More expensive

Can be messy

Turning Drum Bin Can make compost very quickly

Most expensive

May be too small for some uses

Another alternative to composting that some people consider is vermiculture.  Vermiculture uses red worms to break down food scraps.  These worms and food scraps can be kept in an insulated basement or garage.  For more information about vermiculture, visit this page by North Carolina State University.

Step 2: Building the Pile

Once a location has been selected, its time to begin building the compost pile.  To begin, layer several inches of twigs and other chopped brush on top of the soil surface.  The compost pile will be built on top of this base, which allows air circulation around the heap.

As the rest of the pile is built, using ingredients listed below, alternating layers of green and brown materials should be formed.  A small layer of soil should also be added to the compost pile periodically to help inoculate the heap with useful microorganisms.

Step 3: Compost Recipe

A wide variety of materials can be composted.  Materials are classified as either high nitrogen (green) or high carbon (brown) materials.  It is suggested that about 75% (by volume) of the materials added to a compost pile are brown, and 25% are green.  If large pieces of material are to be added to the compost pile, chopping them into smaller pieces can aid in the breakdown of these materials.

High Nitrogen (Green) High Carbon (Brown)
green leaves and grass paper products
vegetable and fruit scraps wood chips
livestock manure
(poultry, rabbit, hog, cattle)
dry leaves and straw
egg shells dryer lint
coffee grounds sawdust
**DO NOT ADD**
(these attract animals and insects, generate odors, and contaminate the pile)
manure from household pets (dogs, cats)
meat, fish, or dairy products
cooking oils or fats
plywood or treated lumber
plastics, styrofoam, or synthetic fibers

 

Compost also requires water and oxygen.  While some materials, such as food scraps and fresh grass clippings, contain water, additional water is sometimes needed during hot summer months.  The ideal moisture content of a compost pile should be similar to a wrung-out sponge.

Oxygen is provided to a compost pile by "turning," or aerating, the pile.  This should be done at least once a month to ensure proper functioning of the pile.

The larger the compost pile, the hotter it will get, which will produce compost in a shorter amount of time.

When is the material fully composted?

Finished compost is a crumbly, dark brown material with a sweet or musty smell.  The original contents of the pile, such as food and vegetable scraps, should no longer be recognisable.  The time required to complete the compost process can vary from 3 weeks to 1 year, depending on methods used, ingredients added, and size of the pile.

How can I use my compost?

Compost can be used in many ways in the yard and garden.  The most common use of compost is to add several inches to vegetable gardens and work into the soil as a soil amendment.  Compost can also be used around growing plants much like mulch to help control weeds and provide nutrients.  Compost can also be "topdressed," or spread in a thin layer over a lawn to provide organic material and nutrients.

Whether or not compost is used, soil testing should still be completed every 2-3 years.

Symptom Problem Solution

The compost has a rotten odor

 

-too much moisture

-cover the pile to protect from rain or snow

-overly-compacted -turn the pile to aerate
The compost has an ammonia odor -too many green materials (too much nitrogen) -add more brown materials (high carbon)
There are lots of pests and flies around the pile

-attracted by meat and fatty foods

-don't add meats and fats to the pile

-overabundance of fly larvae in pile -turn the pile frequently to raise the temperature
Animals are making a mess out of the pile -attracted by meats and fatty foods -don't add meats and fats to the pile
The center of the pile is dry -not enough water -slowly add water and turn the pile
The compost is damp and warm only in the middle -too small -add more materials and mix into the pile
-not enough green material (nitrogen) -add more green materials, or add nitrogen fertilizer

-composting is completed

-all done! use some of your new compost around the yard