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Composting: Turning Trash into Treasure

Cecilia Nasti is an organic food gardener and enthusiastic home cook. She produces and hosts the weekly radio feature Field & Feast broadcast on public radio in Austin, Texas. A nature lover, she also produces and hosts Passport to Texas, a daily statewide radio series about the outdoors for Texas Parks and Wildlife.

Compost: From Trash to Treasure; Photo by Cecilia Nasti

My vegetable garden is getting a makeover this spring, and one of the things I'm most excited about is the soon-to-be built compost bin.

The formula for making compost is a simple 2:1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen. Carbon (brown) includes fallen leaves, wood chips and egg shells. Nitrogen (green) includes fresh grass clippings, manure, and kitchen scraps, but no meat, fat or bones as the compost may not get hot enough to kill harmful bacteria that may grow on those items. When you water everything and give it a good mix, the brown and the green break down and become "black gold."

Compost Bin; Photo by Cecilia NastiLocation. Find a sunny to partly shady place outdoors for your compost pile or bin. Ensure it's away from foot and pet traffic, and near your garden and a water source.

Free range or contained.  A free-range compost pile is easy to access and aerate. Sometimes, though, containing the pile is the better choice (if you need to keep kids and pets out of it, for example). You can find a wide variety of free plans for making compost bins, or find ready-made devices, including some that tumble and others that roll online.

The size of things. Aim for a compost heap that's 4'x4'x4'. That size is manageable, and offers enough volume for the pile to generate an internal temperature of between 120 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit. The high temperature stimulates growth of heat-loving bacteria that promote decay, which is what you're after. When the materials break down, that's when the nutrients become available to the soil, and ultimately to the plants.

Bacteria's buddies. Microbes, insects and worms also play a role in the decomposition of the compost pile. Worms are especially beneficial, as everything they eat comes out seven times more nitrogen-rich than when it went in. You can skip the compost pile altogether and focus on vermiculture, or worm composting. It just takes some red wrigglers, a ventilated container, bedding material like shredded newspaper, and food scraps. The worms and other microorganisms convert the entire contents into rich humus. In some cases you’ll have useable worm castings in just one week.

Water and aeration. You'll want to keep the compost pile moistened but not wet, and turn everything at least once a week. This hastens the decomposition process.

Compost Pile; Photo by Cecilia NastiProblems and their solutions. If your compost pile is not decomposing quickly enough it may have too much carbon, not enough moisture, or needs to be turned more often. If it is stinky and getting slimy, it is too wet, or has too much nitrogen. Hold off on the water and add more carbon.

Are we there yet? Compost is done when is has a rich, crumbly texture and an earthy smell. During fall and winter it could take months for it to decompose. During the heat of summer, you could have finished compost in a few weeks. Test doneness by reaching into the center of the pile and remove a handful of the compost. Put it in a self-sealing plastic bag and leave it at room temperature for a week. If when opened it smells like soil, it is ready. If it has a sour smell, it needs more processing.

The simple act of combining leaves, grass clippings and food scraps and transforming them into free, organic fertilizer is the ultimate in recycling. When compost is done, it looks and smells earthy, but what it does for your plants is heavenly.

Do you think you might attempt making compost? What do you see as your greatest hurdle?

Originally published March 31, 2014.

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Mike says …

this is a fantastic idea! glad to see it.

pishhar says …

great idea

GG says …

Great post, except a couple things: 1. A 3x3x3 compost pile is more manageable and the typically suggested size. 2. It's perfectly fine to add meat, fat and bones to compost, especially if planning to turn the pile regularly, keeping the pile moist as a wrung-out sponge and maintaining a generally 60/40 carbon:nitrogen ratio. Big AG puts far worse in consumers' food, and there's no need to unnecessarily scare folks away from composting all their table scraps. Thanks.

richard burrill says …

Should I add ground worms to the compost? Do you write a gardening report?

Edward Casper says …

Composting was always difficult in the winter in New England, and even more so at my last residence, so I ended up buying a NatureMill indoor/outdoor all-weather composter. It works much, much faster than composting outside by heating, rotating and adding air to the compost automatically, takes little effort, and uses very little electricity. I purchase their wood pellets to keep away any odors in case I do not have enough dry materials in my compost. Regularly clean the seal under the lid and, when empty, the entire lower chamber. After moving the upper chamber compost to the lower chamber, clean all of the upper components so that no dry materials build up. Finally, figure out what you will do in the week before you move the upper chamber compost to the lower one. I do not want to add new food scraps to an almost completely composted product, so I store new scraps for a week or two in a closed container in my refrigerator until I start anew. I let the scraps warm up to room temperature before placing them in the composter, adding a little of the old compost and its beneficial bacteria.

SYLVIA says …

My greatest concern with an open compost bin would be attracting animals to my back yard.

Melvin says …

This was a helpful article and I hope alot of readers take heed to the information and compost!

Nancy Carman says …

Thank you for this article, especially the tips about when the compost is done! Here are my composting tips: If you live in a city, you might check with or keep an eye out for composting workshops sponsored by non-profit organizations or agricultural extensions of colleges. I got a great composting bin for FREE by attending a workshop at Philadelphia’s wonderful Bartram’s Gardens some years ago. It replaced my basement worm bin which, unfortunately, attracted an infestation of fruit flies. (I must have done something wrong.) I put my kitchen scraps in yoghurt containers in the freezer until I can make it outside to dump them in the bin. (saves a lot of steps to do it in one big trip and no odor because it’s frozen in the meantime — I let it thaw in a bucket before adding it.) I have a lot of vines growing in my small garden that need regular trimming and bags full of leaves from neighborhood trees. It’s amazing how it all shrinks in the bin. I use the compost for my small city garden and for one street tree in front that started out small and stunted, but is now as tall as my 3-story row house! I put virtually no wet garbage out for trash pick-up. The main problem I have with this is weighting down my trash bag so that it won’t blow away. (it’s so small) Happy Earth Day!

Sue Koehler says …

A closed bin is a good idea if you want to keep away rodents. Rodents are also a reason to avoid meat scraps. I actually have an extra bin, just for leaves -- because I have so many of them in the fall. All year, in the bin where I want to mix, I put kitchen scraps and grass clippings. After each such "green" deposit I reach into the leaf bin for my "browns" to layer in. Eventually the leaf bin empties out, contributing the carbon that I need in my compost.

Jeane Bare says …

Thankyou so much, this has been timely post as I've been thinking about getting one started and did not have this info. Thanks, again. Jeane

Ginny says …

Actually taking the compost to the compost pit. Sometimes hubby tosses what I have collected.

Patty says …

In the winter time, I run my kitchen scraps through a blender to speed up the decomposing process. Any "old" blender will do.

Doug Powell says …

We are going to start composting too. This article will be helpful. Thank you.

Karen says …

We live in the city and have a small yard. We've been very successful with "vermiculture." Our problem is with rotation. We constantly have kitchen scraps to add, but I'm realizing we need TWO compost piles so that one can accept new while the other finishes "cooking." Am I missing something here, or do I just need a bigger yard?