The Dirt on Composting

I am delighted with the thought that in my lifetime the word compost is understood and embraced by many. I often interject the word ‘compost’ in casual conversation to watch for a glimmer of recognition from the person I’m talking with. While folks may recognize the concept, they may not necessarily practice this elegantly simple activity and I certainly encourage homeowners to consider composting benefits to adopt best gardening practices and start your own compost project.

There are several benefits gained from composting as a household activity, primary is the fact that composting helps reduce the waste that is sent to landfills. Texas A&M AgriLife Extension EarthKind program estimates that “millions of tons of leaves, grass clippings, tree limbs, weeds, organic debris and other yard wastes end up in Texas landfills” and “represents about 20 percent of all trash placed in landfills.” This means that composting has the potential to lighten the fiscal load of millions of taxpayer dollars spent in collecting and disposing of household waste. In the garden and home landscape, compost can be used as mulch or mixed into the soil to aid in soil conditioning and supplementing soil nutrition. The organic material in compost helps loosen the soil and provides improved aeration and drainage. The composition of compost also improves the soils ability to hold water and can reduce the frequency of landscape irrigation.

When we compost, we imitate a natural process of decay to capture nutrient rich material that we can use in the garden. The materials needed to create this decay are carbon rich ‘browns’ such as fallen leaves, nitrogen rich ‘greens’ such as lawn clippings or vegetable scraps, water and oxygen. There are microorganisms such as different kinds of bacteria and fungi that assist in breaking down organic materials to form compost. The microbes use the carbon for energy and nitrogen for protein synthesis. Water helps with decomposition and keeps the pile’s temperature regulated. Also remember that active composting is an aerobic process, occurring in the presence of oxygen.

Here’s a few tips to making a compost bin. Pick a location for your compost pile that is in a convenient place for transferring finished material to your garden as well as access to a water source. You can purchase a commercially made compost tumbler if you are limited for space, and I prefer to make my compost bin in ground. Clear an area at your location that is at least 4 ft x 4 ft. I recommend constructing a 3-sided structure that surrounds your compost pile, one end open to facilitate material turning, watering and eventually digging out. Begin by laying down 3 to 4 inches of carbon-rich browns such as corn stalks, straw and leaves. Top that with several inches of greens. Don’t forget to spray water on the layers before you add the next. Continue layering greens and browns until the pile is 3 feet high and add a thin layer of soil as a sort of starter. When thinking of the kind of appropriate materials to add, I offer a simple rule of thumb as advice that I once heard from a well-seasoned gardener: add nothing with eyes! This means not adding animal waste like meat products or dairy, products that will emit foul odors as they decay and may attract unwanted pests such as rodents and fire ants. Use a ratio of 2 parts carbon-rich materials such as shredded leaves, brown paper bags, coffee filters, etc. to 1-part nitrogen-rich matter such as vegetable scraps and lawn clippings. When watering, and maintaining moisture in your pile, the mixture should be as wet as a wrung-out sponge. Mix the entire pile occasionally and allow decomposition to occur for a few months. Composting is an activity you can do solo or as a family and can be performed year-round.

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