Get the Dirt on Composting
Because a Rind is a Terrible Thing to Waste!
On average, Americans produce 4.5 pounds of trash every day. At least two-thirds of that is organic waste, including food scraps, such as potato peels and apple cores.
Add to this organic yard waste — leaves, weeds, grass clippings — and we have thousands of pounds of organic waste being trucked to landfills and waste disposal facilities every day.
In a landfill, organic waste decomposes anaerobically (without oxygen) emitting a high volume of methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas and a primary contributor to climate change.
A far preferable way to dispose of organic waste is on-site composting, which can be done on even the smallest of properties. Hundreds of Bedford homeowners compost at home and Bedford2020 wants to help others learn how.
What is compost?
Compost is a dark, crumbly, porous, soil-like material. In nature, compost simply “happens” as plant materials break down and form humus, the rich, organic component of soil.
Why use compost?
Adding compost to garden soil will improve its structure and drainage ability by creating spaces for roots, water, and air. Compost also slowly releases and unlocks the nutrients that plants need to grow.
Why make compost at home?
At-home composting reduces the need to cart leaves and other organic matter off site. When you make your own compost, you don’t have to buy chemical fertilizers or mulch to feed your own lawn, shrubs flowers, and vegetables.
How do I use it?
The list is endless! Compost can be: mixed directly into your soil, applied as a thick layer of mulch in your vegetable and flower gardens, added as a top dressing on your lawn, added as an amendment to potting soil, and even soaked in a bucket to “boost” water for your indoor or outdoor plants.
Add your household and yard “Greens” to your “Browns.”
Compost will happen naturally; however, there are some things that you can do to help the process. First of all take note of the “green” to “brown” ratio of your pile.
Browns are dry, carbon-rich plant materials with no life in them—autumn leaves, straw, woodchips, twigs, shredded newspaper. (Confusingly, used coffee grounds are nitrogen rich and therefore are considered “green.”)
Greens are fresh, moist, nitrogen-rich plant materials that still have some life in them— fresh leaves, prunings, grass clippings and food waste such as vegetable and fruit scraps, coffee grounds.
The optimal brown (carbon) to green (nitrogen) ratio is 30 to 1 for an active compost pile. While composters aim for that perfect ratio, the composting process will still happen if you don’t have it—just not so efficiently.
Keep the entire pile damp, but not soggy.
Moist piles provide ideal conditions for the organisms that do the work of turning your plant materials into finished compost. Dried-out piles take longer to break down.
Mix your materials.
Mixing the pile allows air to be incorporated, distributes excess water, and speeds the process by providing the most contact between browns and greens. Compacted or soggy piles can produce unpleasant odors.
Chop everything into smaller pieces.
Break up your browns and greens to create more surfaces for the organisms to work on. Your pile will compost faster and be easier to mix together.
When is it ready?
Finished compost is a rich, dark material that looks like soil and has an earthy smell.
If your compost begins to smell, mix in some browns. It’s that simple.
Different Ways to Compost
Pile it up!
You can simply leave your browns and greens in a pile, four foot square is a good minimum size to hold in the heat and moisture that make compost organisms thrive. The pile doesn’t have to be contained in any way, although wire fencing will keep it tidier.
A three-bin compost system is another way to go. Bin #1 has fresh waste, bin #2 has compost that is “cooking,” and bin #3 has finished compost that can be used on the garden. When bin #3 is emptied, move everything along to start the system over again, while aerating the compost in the process.
Bins and things
There are many different compost bins available. Check them out at Mill River Supply on Adams St. in Bedford Hills or most hardware stores. Online suppliers, such as Gardeners Supply Company or Gardeners Edge are also good resources.
Compost containers and drums are good for small-scale composting of kitchen waste. Make sure any compost container has holes in the sides so that air can circulate into the bin. Note that kitchen waste is highly “green” nitrogen material, so it’s wise to keep a pile of leaves or other “browns” on hand to periodically add to the bin.
Upright bins: If you are continually adding organic waste to your compost bin don’t keep stirring it up. Let the old stuff decompose at the bottom while the newly added waste settles on top. You can stir the top 10 inches or so to ensure that it is evenly distributed but don’t go any deeper than that.
Tumblers: These can be fun, especially for teaching kids about composting, but don’t continue to add food scraps while older scraps compost. Fill the bin over a defined period and then let that whole batch compost before emptying it and starting a new cycle. The double side-by-side tumblers allow you to fill one bin while the other “cooks.”
Vermicomposting or “worm box” composting
Vermicomposting is something that is done inside rather than outside. It is a great way to manage organic kitchen waste disposal. Vermicomposting uses the red wiggler worm (which is usually purchased) rather than the standard garden earthworm. The worm box is set up with worms, shredded paper and a regular supply of green kitchen waste (no meats, fats, oils). The compost produced by a worm bin is actually worm castings, which are a fabulous garden amendment.
In Bedford, when fall comes, it seems as if we have too many leaves but leaves make fantastic compost and mulch which save money and improve our plants.
Here are some great ways to take advantage of fall leaves and avoid the work and taxpayer expense of getting them to the sidewalk for the town to collect:
- Leaves can be piled whole and left to break down into compost.
- Leaves can be added to a compost bin as the “browns” component.
- Leaves can be mulched into small pieces with a mulcher mower or a leaf shredder and used as a protective mulch on flower and vegetable beds.
- Leaves can be mulched right into lawns, providing nourishment to the lawn and improving soil structure for better drainage.
Guide to Compostable Materials
Check out this Green Mountain guide to what can and can not be composted and why. What is really compostable? Products to buy and use and more.
Bronx Green-Up. The New York Botanical Society.
Cornell Waste Management Institute.
Worms Eat My Garbage. Mary Appelhof.