Today you'll gain a foundational understanding of composting. This will include the benefits of compost, the parts of compost, starting and maintaining a compost pile, and finally troubleshooting tips. Information on composting is vast on the internet. It’s easy to fall into a rabbit hole discovering countless guides, tips, and tricks of this sustainable practice. Luckily Zionites, you don’t need a lot to get started and we're here to guide you through the process!
So What Is Compost... and Why Should I Care?
Before we dive in deeper into the subject, let’s review what compost is. Compost is the breaking down of organic materials into simpler compounds that can then serve as natural plant fertilizer. It is nature’s built-in recycling process where food waste is decomposed into nutrient-rich soil when exposed to oxygen, water, and organisms like worms and bacteria. In other words, the Earth consumes our edible scraps and in turn, provides us with nutritious foods in an ideal closed-loop cycle.
It is estimated that an approximate 30% of household waste can be composted. This means it can be diverted from landfills, where food waste wrapped in plastic garbage bags release methane as it tries to decompose. For aspiring and professional gardeners alike, composting in turn provides nutrient-rich soil that optimizes plant growth. Composting essentially reduces a waste problem and contributes to a gardening solution. Even if you don’t garden, you can share with a friend who does or drop it off at a participating farmer’s market (Check with your local farmer’s market to confirm whether they collect food scraps. Audubon Park Community Market and the Solid Waste Main Office are free drop-off locations in the Orlando area. See links below.)
Parts of Compost
Getting started with compost can look a little different depending on whether you live in a multi-family dwelling with no yard or in a house with some land. Regardless of your current residence, however, all compost is composed of the similar types of organic material.
Materials that are high in nitrogen are considered “greens”. This includes fruit and vegetable peels, coffee grounds, and fresh grass clippings. These materials tend to be higher in moisture and decompose quickly.
“Browns” include leaves, straws, dried grass, shredded brown paper, and shredded newspaper. They contain more carbon, tend to be dryer, and take longer to decompose.
Other Elements of Composting
There are other components that are needed for composting to occur effectively. A healthy compost needs oxygen, moisture, heat, bacteria, and other small organisms to help speed up the breakdown process. In the next section, we will learn how to incorporate all of these elements into a new compost bin.
Types of Compost Bins
There are many types of compost bins. The ideal bin is the one that best matches your space, your needs, and how much you are able to invest; not just in money, but in time. Some even choose to simply have a heap in their backyard with no bin (This requires the least amount of effort, but considerations should be made regarding orderliness and pests). The most common types of bins are:
These bins vary in size but are typically smaller than stationary bins and are best fit for individuals living in apartments. They can be kept inside in the kitchen or on the outside balcony/patio. The level of effort needed is determined by the end goal. If you just plan on saving kitchen scraps to drop off at a friend’s or market’s compost bin, a small trash bin on the counter or in the freezer is enough. If you are interested in developing enriching soil for your own potted plants, you will need a slightly larger bin with holes for aeration. Maintaining a balance of greens and browns (see below), turning, watering, and the addition of redworms (known as vermicomposting) becomes more crucial to achieve proper decomposition.
For those who have a yard, an outdoor stationary bin is ideal as kitchen scraps and yard waste begin to accumulate. The bin can be made out of wood, concrete blocks, or other materials resistant to outdoor conditions. The compost will need oxygen so make sure the bin is not tightly sealed. You can also have two bins to facilitate rotating the compost. (Those living in the City of Orlando can request a free stationary compost bin at: https://www.orlando.gov/Trash-Recycling/Request-a-Free-Composter).
Tumbler bins are also typically found outside. Various models are available for purchase, or if you’re passionate about DIY projects, you can build one with a plastic barrel and wood. The most notable benefit of a tumbler bin is its ability to be rotated with minimal effort, aerating the decomposing materials inside.
As previously mentioned, there are several elements to composting. Decomposition will happen naturally with all organic materials. Nevertheless, the process can be helped along by tending to these various factors.
Greens : Browns Ratio
The appropriate balance of green and brown material in your compost is something to consider if you want to facilitate decomposition. A ratio of 3:1 browns-to-greens is typically recommended. Ultimately, keep an eye on your compost to determine when to add what material.
· If the compost has begun to give off unwanted odors, add more brown materials.
· If the compost has cooled down and become too dry, add more green materials.
Size of Organic Material
Size matters. Typically, the smaller the material in the compost bin, the sooner it will decompose. Food scraps can be blended or chopped in the kitchen. Paper and leaves can be shredded.
Keep your compost moist, but not soggy. If it is too dry, the microorganisms cannot thrive; if it is too soggy, air will struggle to circulate through the compost. Both extremes will result in delayed decomposition. Green material will naturally add moisture to your compost, but if the pile still appears too dry, you can water your compost. Just make sure you don’t make it soggy. The compost should feel wet in your hand, but it shouldn’t be dripping water. If your compost bin has no lid and it has been rainy, make sure to turn the pile and add more brown material, such as newspaper, to prevent the compost from getting too wet.
Due to the number of microorganisms working hard to decompose materials in the compost pile, it is necessary to turn the pile periodically to allow for oxygen to enter. If you choose a tumbler bin, this can be done easily by rotating the barrel.
In a compost pile with ideal moisture, green-to-brown ratio, and oxygen, decomposition will begin to emit heat. An ideal temperature for compost is 130o F. If you don’t have a thermometer, you can check this by placing a hand in; the compost should be warm to touch. This can be used as a guide to determine the state of your compost and whether steps should be taken to modify any of the above-mentioned factors.
Below are some common issues you may experience with your compost, along with some effective solutions.
To clarify, organisms such as worms, beetles, and maggots will naturally appear in the composting process and help with breakdown of material. If you insist on not having maggots in the bin, make sure to add more browns to your compost and add a screen to the top to prevent flies from entering.
By contrast, larger pests, such as squirrels, raccoons, and rats, do not contribute to the composting process. They can be deterred by making sure that green material (i.e. food scraps) are well hidden under a layer of brown material. Keeping your compost in a bin with a lid will further keep critters at bay.
Unwanted Odors and Fruit Flies
If you keep a compost bin indoors, you may experience unwelcome smells and fruit flies. A quick resolution is adding more brown materials to the top of the bin, or adding an aerated lid (i.e. with small holes to allow aeration). If you just have a bin for collecting kitchen scraps that will later be transferred outside for composting, it can be placed in the freezer and emptied once full.
When is compost ready?
The answer to this question depends greatly on the contents of the compost, its location, and the level of management provided throughout the process of decomposition. This can vary from 3-4 months to a year. You’ll know its ready when it looks like soil, smells earthy, and is no longer releasing heat. At this point, you can mix the soil-ready compost into your plant pots and garden beds. Now here is where the real fun begins!!!
Well, there you have it. There is so much more to composting but with this introduction, you’ve got what you need to get started. Thank you for taking this first step in supporting this natural, nutritive process. More articles delving deeper into the topic of composting will follow, so stay tuned Zionites!
Drop-off compost sites in Orlando: