Blog by Melissa Goodwill, Education and Community Programs Coordinator
Spring is a great time of year to plan and begin backyard composting. While a backyard compost system does require some set up, it is easier than you may think and the benefits of composting are well worth the time. Composting is a great way to reduce the amount of waste that comes from your home and has great benefits for your plants and lawn.
Compost is a natural material made up of decomposed organic matter. This organic matter can come from your yard, your kitchen, and even your mailbox. All organic matter decomposes and a compost system is a great way to utilize that natural process to enhance your lawn and gardens. Decomposition is nature’s way of recycling nutrients. In order to facilitate decomposition in a compost system it needs organic matter, heat, air, water, beneficial microbes, and decomposer insects. It may sound like a lot, but all you have to add is the organic matter, water, and air through occasional stirring or rolling. The beneficial microbes and decomposer insects show up all on their own along with the heat.
There are many different ways to set up a compost system and learning about all of them can help you to choose the best system for you. Here are just a few types of composting systems along with some pros and cons for each style.
At home composting can be as simple as piling the appropriate home and garden scraps in a pile in your yard. This system is not designed to produce compost quickly, but it is low maintenance, inexpensive, and easy to access. The cons of an open pile system are it can attract pests, it requires yard space, it’s hard to compost year round, and it is not always visually attractive.
Open Compost Containers
Stationary open compost containers are different from piles in that they have a defined space for the compost materials to go in. They can be constructed from wood or plastic. This compost system is typically inexpensive, takes advantage of native decomposers already present in your yard, and can be placed in a variety of areas around your yard. This system is vulnerable to pests, requires regular turning, and is more exposed to unwanted seeds and plants growing in your compost.
Enclosed Compost Bins (tumblers, bins)
This compost system requires purchasing a bin, but there are many benefits to this system. They are easy to use and require less effort to turn the compost, they don’t take up much space, and they keep out pests. However, this system can only make a limited amount of compost at a time, emptying the system can be physically difficult for some, it does not compost well in the winter, and summer temperatures inside the system must be monitored to ensure it’s not too hot.
Finding the right spot for your compost bin is important. You’ll want to find an area in your yard that meets most of or all of the following criteria:
Proper composting includes adding a mixture of “brown” and “green” materials in a 2:1 ration. Brown materials include dry leaves, small twigs, straw, and newspaper. These materials add the proper amount of carbon to the finished compost and help to keep the compost pile from getting too wet. Green materials include grass clippings, appropriate kitchen scraps, and fresh plant matter. The green materials provide moisture and the ideal amount of nitrogen to the finished compost.
Putting the wrong materials into a compost system can lead to slowed decomposition, unwanted pests, rotting, and foul smells. The following items should never be put into a compost system.
No matter what compost system you choose there will be some maintenance to do while your compost is being made. Be sure to keep the compost materials moist, about the same consistency as a damp sponge. If the material becomes too dry or too wet the decomposition process will be affected. The materials also need air circulation to aid in decomposition so the compost should either be spun, or turned with a shovel or pitch fork to have good air flow. Add the right materials in the right ratio (2 brown : 1 green) in layers.
Composting takes time, usually around 3 to 4 months for the materials in the compost to fully break down. Finished compost is similar in texture to soil and is dark in color with an earthy smell. This finished compost is full of recycled nutrients that will really help your yard and plants to flourish.
There are lots of options when it comes to using finished compost. For garden beds layer compost an inch thick between plants. For growing new seedlings use a mixture of 20% compost to 80% potting mix or soil. Indoor potted plants can benefit from the additional nutrients from compost when a small handful is added to the soil surface. Lawns can benefit from compost, too, by evenly sprinkling 1/8 to ¼ inch of compost into the grass.
It’s best to add compost to your garden beds in the fall so the nutrients can integrate into the soil during the winter and improve the growing area for the following spring. Starting a spring compost bin is a great way to ensure that you’ll have some healthy compost to add around your house this fall.