Home & Garden Special Section: Composting keeps waste out of the landfill

Published on Wed, Aug 29, 2012 by Rhiannon Allen

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People often ask me how to compost, as if it were some mystery process, but it’s much easier than you think. 

Composting is the act of taking organic matter and decomposing it into a fertilizer that can be used in the garden to enrich soil. Think of it as recycling – vegetable patch to compost pile and then back into the garden. Like all recycling, composting is good for the environment because it keeps material out of the landfill. Because you keep the useful product of your recycling efforts, you also reduce your need to buy fertilizer. 

Many people are intimidated by the information that they find on compost methods such as “lasagne” (layered) composting and ‘vermiculture’ (worm bins). Such scientific methods of composting are ideal, but it needn’t be as complicated as that. As long as I can remember, my family composted in a good-enough, old-fashioned manner that is easy to do and easy to learn. 

Modern scientific methods of composting are actually based on various facets of the old-fashioned method, techniques honed to a level of perfection and precision that doesn’t suit all of us. 

If you are a novice to composting, you do not need fancy equipment – all you need is a small bucket in your kitchen to collect fruit and vegetable scraps. Gardening supply catalogs sell scrap buckets and liners, but I’ve always used a lidded ice cream container or paint bucket. As you work in the kitchen, scraps go in the bucket. Plant-based products such as tea bags and paper towels can go in too, but don’t include animal products like cheese or meat, since they will stink and attract vermin. The exception is eggshells, which should be broken into small pieces. 

I’ve found that the worms in my compost don’t like onion or citrus peels, but I put those in the bucket anyway with the understanding that they will take longer to compost. Very hard items like fruit pits might as well go in the garbage, since they take too long to compost. Every day, or as often as convenient, just empty your little bucket into the outdoor compost, rinse the bucket, and return it to the kitchen. 

For the outdoor compost, you don’t need fancy equipment either, but feel free to buy a composting bin if you like. Your compost pile can just be heaped on the ground. If you are the tidy sort, you can build low walls to contain and hide the pile. 

My favorite method is to take an old garbage bin and drill holes in it. Contrary to many people’s beliefs, compost does not stink. It can attract insects, however, so you should locate the bin away from your house. You will also need a garden fork for turning the compost. 

Kitchen scraps simply get added to the compost pile. Grass clippings are a fantastic addition to your compost pile, so pile them on. Also add garden clippings, as long as they are non-woody and disease-free. Be aware, however, that many garden seeds will remain viable, so when you later spread your compost as fertilizer, these seeds might germinate. 

This method relies partially on worms to digest the organic matter. One way to acquire these quickly is to add some day- to week-old horse manure from a paddock. These droppings attract the red wrigglers that are the powerhouse of the vermiculture method of composting. If you add fresh horse manure to your compost, you should wait two years before using the compost to allow pathogens and grass seeds to break down completely. 

This method also uses bacteria to break down scraps. This will occur naturally, but you can speed up the process by adding chicken droppings or a commercial compost accelerator. Bacterial decomposition is aided by turning the compost every month and keeping it damp. The bacterial composting process suspends itself during a hard freeze, so you many not want to add scraps during a hard winter.

If all goes well, you will have compost within a year – or two at the most. You will know it’s ready to spread when it looks like soil. And once you feel comfortable with the process, you can turn your attention to those more scientific methods … or not.