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Get the Dirt on Composting at Home

If you’ve ever tried your hand at gardening, even of the container variety, chances are you’ve heard at least a little about the importance of compost. That’s for good reason: healthy compost mixed with soil will give your plants the nutrients they need to thrive.

Compost is also a fantastic way to help combat a huge problem — food waste. A recent paper from the National Resources Defense council shows that Americans waste up to 40 percent of their food, and much of that wasted food winds up in landfills, making methane and generally having a negative effect on the environment. Small changes like composting at home can make a big difference. We can turn food waste into fuel for new vegetables and fruits. There are plenty of ways to accomplish composting — from small to large.

Compost Basics

From coffee grounds to banana peels, the “in” list is long. It’s easier to tell you what to leave out of the bin: meat or bone pieces, pet waste, glossy paper, chemically treated wood, diseased plants (or those decimated by insects, which may stay in the stems) and coal or ash. Items to compost with care, and in smaller amounts: dairy and fats, which can go rancid, and highly acidic items such as pine straw, as they may cause imbalances in your compost.

A properly kept compost bin or pile should not stink. If it does, you’ll want to troubleshoot the pile: is it too wet? Too dry? Is there too much of a bad thing present?

The finished product can be spread throughout the garden and worked into the soil. I add compost to the garden at the beginning of each new season, just before I plant seeds and transplants.

Small Steps

Add spent coffee grounds to your houseplants (but be sure the pets stay away!) and collect the rest of your food scraps in a countertop container fitted with a carbon filter to control the smell. Enroll in a local composting pick-up service, or find a friend with his own bin and ask to add to it. If your apartment complex has its own community garden, help start a composting initiative.

High-Tech Composting
Bokashi composting can be done in a small space and speeds up the process with fermentation, making for an odorless method of composting right on your countertop. The process takes just a few days. For the tech-savvy home, try a smart composter like the Nature Mill Composter. Fill it with scraps, and it does the work! Leave it to compost for a week, pumping in oxygen and grinding as it goes.

Got Worms?

Indoor vermicomposting is another great option for small spaces. Sure, you have to be ok with worms cohabiting in your space, but vermicomposting is easy — and worm castings make some of the healthiest compost on the market. Look for local classes, or turn to the Internet for plenty of how-to videos. The upside of worms is that their bin can fit easily under a kitchen counter, or in a storage closet.

Space to Grow

For a small back yard or balcony garden, give a compost tumbler a try. Compost tumblers are great options for folks who want to keep things off the ground (no critters!) and don’t have enough room for a farm-sized composting area. Compost tumblers also allow you to turn the compost, aerating it, by flipping the entire pile inside a plastic bin. This helps speed up the process. 

Pitchforks and Pastures

If you have plenty of room, build a multi-bin system that will allow for different stages of compost to happen simultaneously. There are myriad resources for how to do this; I am working on building mine from free wooden pallets. The open-air method requires that you aerate manually by flipping the pile periodically with a shovel or pitchfork. Having multiple bins means you can allow one side to compost while adding fresh scraps to the other. Build it close to your garden; once you have the finished product, you’ll be able to easily get it to the plants.

Do you compost? Which method do you prefer?

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Dory Cox says …

We're trying an English version: In our garden, we alternate sections of (1) compost, (2) pathway, and (3) plants. Then, next season, we'll rotate, planting where the compost was, composting where the pathway was, etc. Hope it works well!

Rachel says …

Yes, we most definitely compost! I don't think people realize how easy it is to do. I wrote a blog entry to show folks how simple it is and also answered many frequently asked questions re: composting here: http://www.mothersmementos.com/2011/04/compost-salad-with-side-of-hairball.html

Teri smyth says …

Composting is great. You feel great helping out the environment and you are building up and fortifying your own soil at the same time. I also learned to add compost next to plants that were doing poorly. Bury the vegie trimmings and soon enough your plant will perk up!

joyce bannon says …

Yes home compost is the best for gardens I have never been sucessful with it but this information has been very helpful.Thanks a lot.

Jennifer Fischer says …

I was so intimidated to compost at home, but through an LA County program I got a compost bin for only $40 and now cannot believe I ever did not compost. It is great - and so easy. Plus, we have gotten really creative with our scraps before they land in the bin. http://jennifischer.blogspot.com/2012/05/we-love-composting-dinosaurs.html

Jay says …

Composting. This is some new subject to me! I'm not clear about what I read above( about composting ). What item is good to compost and what is not. I tried some gardening before, but I find I'm not that green finger. However, I like to do something that will contribute to a greener environment.

michael oberther says …

Just bought a house in may and wanted to build a garden for 2013. Started composting in plastic trash barrels. I didnt find it to tought to do, this info is really helpfull. Using organic vegitable waste is a bonus, i dont always buy organic but when i do i get kinda excited to run it out to my garage. You can check my project out are HTTP://suddenlysuburban.com

Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@JAY - Congrats on starting to compost! The recommended items that will go in to your compost vary depending on what method of composting you are using. For most compost methods you will want to avoid meat or bone pieces, pet waste, glossy paper, chemically treated wood, diseased plants (or those decimated by insects, which may stay in the stems) and coal or ash. Items to compost with care, and in smaller amounts: dairy and fats, which can go rancid, and highly acidic items such as pine straw, as they may cause imbalances in your compost. If you choose a "high-tech" composting option, such as the Bokashi listed above, they claim that meat and dairy are not a problem to compost. Best of luck!

anna says …

I've been saving vegy scraps n such,4- years.I believe in givin bac.Glad to know I've been doin it corectly,thanks...

Steve Lohn says …

I find your blog very informative, I grow tropical fruit and composting is a very important part of it. For anyone interested in learning more about growing tropical fruit such as pineapples or avacodos, check out my blog at www.rainforesttropicalfruit.blogspot.com

George Venizelos says …

A very usefull article!!!

Beth Lowd says …

Does the Legacy Place Whole Foods accept food waste from customers to make compost?

Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@BETH - It varies between store locations if they accept compost from homes. You can check with the store directly at 781-329-7100 to find out!