A Composting Guide for the Home Gardener
How It Works
What To Use
The Finished Product
A Bevy of Bins
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What to Compost
Now that you're ready to start making compost, you need to know what organic materials can -- and cannot -- be used in the compost bin or pile.
Organic waste is the best raw material to make compost from. This can come from your garden, your kitchen (visit Starbucks' page on Grounds for Your Garden) and even your home at large.
Note: According to the United States EPA, yard trimmings and food residuals together constitute 23 percent of the U.S. municipal solid waste stream. That's a lot of waste to send to landfills when it could become useful and environmentally beneficial compost instead!
Ingredients that can make good compost include:
Materials to Avoid
• Coal Ash - 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.
• Colored Paper - Some paper with colored inks (including newsprint) contain heavy metals or other toxic materials and should not be added to the compost pile (see Heavy Metal Garden).
• Diseased Plants - It takes an efficient composting system and ideal conditions (extreme heat) to destroy many plant diseases. If the disease organisms are not destroyed they can be spread later when the compost is applied. Avoid questionable plant materials.
• Inorganic Materials - This stuff won't break down and includes aluminum foil, glass, plastics and metals. Pressure-treated lumber should also be avoided because it's treated with chemicals that could be toxic in compost.
• Meat, Bones, Fish, Fats, Dairy - These products can "overheat" your compost pile (not to mention make it stinky and attract animals). They are best avoided.
• Pet Droppings - Dog or cat droppings contain several disease organisms and can make compost toxic to handle. (Can you believe the state of Alaska actually spent $25,000 on a study to determine the effects of composting dog poop? - PDF format)
• Synthetic Chemicals - Certain lawn and garden chemicals (herbicides - 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.
A Word About Activators
A compost activator contributes either high nitrogen, microorganisms, or both, and provides a quick boost to the decomposition process. Consider throwing some algae, seaweed or lake weed into the pile. Just be sure to rinse off any salt water before adding. You can also "jump start" your compost by adding aged manure, alfalfa meal, cottonseed meal, blood meal or compost starter. Also, you may want to add ashes from a wood-burning stove if you've added a lot of acidic materials such as pine needles and oak leaves. Wood ashes are alkaline and can help adjust the pH of your compost pile if it gets too acidic.
Tip: The compost activator shown here contains a proprietary blend of thermophilic microorganisms as well as a nutrient energy source to quickly break down lawn clippings, brown leaves, wood chips, pine needles and more. Use one cup for every 3' x 4' x 4" layer.
Speeding Up the Compost Process
Compost decomposes fastest between 120 and 160 degrees Fahrenheit, so anything that will increase the heat will "cook" your compost faster. Here are four tips for fast composting:
1.) Chop and shred larger items, which makes it easier for the bacteria to break them down. For example, one easy way is to slice and dice garden waste is to run your lawn mower over leaves and other garden waste. Take scissors to newsprint or cardboard.
2.) Turn, turn, turn.
3.) Give your compost heap a "big meal" versus small snacks. Collect all your organic waste over a couple of days and then add it in one big bunch. The more you add at one time, the more your compost will heat up.
4.) Keep your compost pile in the sun. The heat will speed up the process.
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