Composting 101


We all want to be good stewards of the Earth, and with landfills across the country overflowing, reducing the amount of trash we make has never been more important. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, food scraps and yard waste make up 20 percent to 30 percent of what we throw away. Composting is a fun and easy way turn this type of trash into something useful for our gardens and landscape beds. And through composting, children get a hands-on experience in recycling from start to finish with an activity that involves dirt, water and digging. What child wouldn’t enjoy that?

Mary Jac Brennan, assistant extension agent for Forsyth County, says composting is an easy way to be green. “Compost has such great value for our gardens and farms. It makes no sense to just send it off to the landfill,” she says.

Backyard composting speeds up the natural process of decay that continually replenishes topsoil. A compost bin creates optimum conditions for the microorganisms responsible for that decay so they can do their job more quickly. The resulting compost can then be applied to gardens or landscaping beds to improve soil structure and add nutrients.

Building your own compost bin starts with deciding where to put it. Brennan suggests an area near your garden and easy to access when carrying scraps from your kitchen.

“You also want to be a good neighbor about where you site it,” she said.

If your bin will be placed in an area in full sight, you will want to use a more attractive system. If your area has known rodent problems, you may want to use a closed commercial system. Brennan also recommends starting with a smaller bin because it will be easier to maintain.

The simplest type of compost bin can be made using wire mesh (otherwise known as chicken wire), which can be purchased at local hardware stores. To make a bin 4 feet in diameter, you will need about 12.5 feet of 3-to-4-foot wide wire mesh. (This width will become the height of your bin.) Wrap the wire mesh into a cylinder and secure the edges together with clips or short pieces of wire. Set the cylinder on its end in your chosen spot.

Simple plans for many other types of compost bins can be found online. You can also purchase compost bins or kits at local hardware stores and garden centers. Many of these bins are made from plastic and may be a good choice for keeping rodents and domestic animals from raiding your compost.

Once your compost bin is complete, the real fun begins. Add a couple of inches of fallen leaves to the bottom of your bin. Fall is a wonderful time of year to start as leaves make a great base for your bin.

Then collect your kitchen scraps. Hardware stores and garden centers sell kitchen compost jars with charcoal filters to control odors, or you could simply use a closed plastic container. Add these kitchen scraps to your base of leaves along with grass clippings, shredded paper and other organic materials (see below).

Successful composting requires an equal mix of carbon-rich items (sometimes called browns) and nitrogen-rich items (sometimes called greens).

Browns (carbon-rich items)

? Leaves
? Eggshells
? Shredded paper
? Straw
? Pine needles

Greens (nitrogen-rich items)

? Veggie/fruit scraps
? Grass clippings
? Coffee grounds/filters
? Tea bags
? Green plants                                 

Do not compost meat, dairy products, or cat and dog manure. These items are difficult to compost completely and will attract animals. Turn (or mix) the pile every few days. Special compost-turning tools can be purchased, but a pitchfork or shovel will work just as well. Also be sure your pile stays moist by misting lightly with water during dry conditions.

A well-maintained bin can make finished compost in as little as eight weeks. To speed up the process, be sure to cut materials into small pieces, which provides more surface area for microbes to work.

How do you know if your compost is working? Composting generates heat as part of the decay process. This heat comes from the metabolism of microorganisms as they digest organic matter. Brennan recommends buying a compost thermometer to see if your pile is getting hot enough. She said home compost piles should reach 130 degrees in the center where the composting process is most active.

If your compost is not heating, make sure:

? Your brown and green mix is roughly equal.
? You are cutting materials into small pieces.
? Your pile is staying moist.
? You are turning your pile regularly.

Your compost is finished when you see large amounts of dark, sweet-smelling soil (call humus) collect on the bottom of the pile. Brennan suggests using hardware cloth or screen with ¼-inch squares stapled to a wood frame for harvesting compost. Put the frame over a bucket or wheel barrow and shovel compost on top. The finer material that falls through the screen is ready to be used in your garden or landscaping beds.

Gardening and composting go hand-in-hand and give children the opportunity to experience a true circle of life. You grow the food, you eat the food and you return the scraps to the soil to feed next year’s planting. If you have or are planning to plant a spring garden, starting a compost bin now will ensure you have plenty of finished compost to improve the soil in your garden before spring planting.

Composting Resources

“Compost! Growing Gardens From Your Garbage,” by Linda Glaser; illustrated by Anca Hariton

“Composting: Nature’s Recyclers,” by Robin Koontz; illustrated by Matthew Harrad

Ace Hardware (compost bin-building materials, bins and supplies); various Triad locations

L.A. Reynolds Garden Center (compost bins and supplies)
4400 Styers Ferry Road, Winston-Salem

Plow and Hearth, Thruway Center (compost bins)
414 S. Stratford Road, Winston-Salem

CalRecyle Backyard Composting Page
Cooperative Extension, Forsyth County

Cooperative Extension, Guilford County

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