Friday, February 10, 2012

Composting: a Beginner's Guide

Please welcome Chris & Rebekah from Liberated Family as my guest writers today. Read to the bottom for their bio. Today I share with you a Beginner's Guide to Composting.

Fourteen percent of all waste in the landfill is food waste. That's 33 million tons per year of compostables taking up landfill space and interrupting the natural cycle of rot and rebirth. Of course, the apple peels, leftovers, and certain types of trash have a better chance of rotting in the landfills, than the plastic wrappers and bubblepaks. But it's so much more efficient and better for us all if kitchen scraps are kept out of landfills, and taken care of in your own backyard (or your neighbor's backyard, you get the idea).

(A little aside for those of you with no backyard: there's information in here about alternate and space-saving ways of composting. And if all else fails, send it down the drain with a garbage disposal. It saves space in the landfill and sends those potential nutrients back into the environment.)

And once your compost is ready, it's the perfect natural fertilizer. According to Let it Rot: The Gardener's Guide to Composting by Stu Campbell, “compost contains nutrients that your plants need for optimum growth, such as nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium.” The book goes on to say that compost is “an especially good supplier of micronutrients that are needed in small quantities, … such as boron, cobal, copper, iodine, iron, manganese, molybdenum, and zinc.” And when you harvest and eat your food grown in such mineral-rich soil, you get the benefit of those minerals in your diet. These minerals are sorely missing from the American diet.

What goes in

First, you should know what you should and should not compost:
Add Freely Add in Limited Amounts DO NOT Add
Each item should be under 20% by volume Each item should be under 10% of total 0%

Hay (including salt hay)


Grass Clippings (dried)

Old sod

Reject or spoiled garden produce

Vegetable and fruit peels

Newspaper (shredded)

Eggshells (crushed)

Stable or poultry manure

Tea bags
Corn cobs

Shredded twigs & bark

Pine needles

Hedge trimmings

Wood shavings


Coffee grounds

Peanut shells
Diseased or pest-laden materials

Meat or bones


Whole eggs


Fruit pits

Cat or dog manure

Bakery products

Dairy products

Dinner plate scrapings that include meat or grease
Taken from The All-New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. I omitted seeds from the "No" column because the heat generated in a compost pile renders them unable to grow.

For kitchen scraps, it goes like this: if it's animal, leave it out. If it's vegetable, put it in. And if it's a mineral, you might put a little bit in. Dried animal manure is great - just watch for the source. Commercially- available manures are usually from factory farms and will contain antibiotics and who knows what else. Your local farmer - he might have just what you need. Garden and yard waste is also great - just be sure grass is dried before you add it or it becomes a waterproof and unmanageable mess.

Tending your pile

Once you've got your pile going, turn it about once a week, pulling what's on the top to the sides and what's on the sides to the middle, where all the heat (and microbial action) is. Some find it easiest to do this with two piles of compost. If you have the space, go for it.

But what if you don't have room for even one pile? Put a plastic container on the deck or backyard, buy a commercial compost spinner, or just get a large plastic trash can with a tight-fitting lid. If you use any type of airtight container, drill or poke some holes in it so it can breathe. And if you've used a trash can, turning the compost is so simple - just lay it on its side and roll it.

Harvesting the pile

When compost is done, the amount of heat goes back to normal (outside) air temperature. It will be black and crumbly and smell like good, clean earth. And it has about a hundred different uses:
  • Till or mix it in with your garden soil. Lay it on top your garden after the first frost and before the ground freezes, or till it in in the spring. Or you can mix it in the dirt right before planting. Adding it in the fall is best, as it gives the most time for the nutrients to leach throughout the soil instead of making "hot spots" that are too rich for plants to thrive.
  • Make potting soil by mixing one part compost (strained through a screen) and two parts soil. Spread the mixture thinly on an old baking sheet and bake it at 200°F for about 20 minutes to kill off any harmful bacteria present in the soil.
  • Add a layer of compost to the soil surface in any of your houseplants.
  • Dig a furrow down a row of plants in the garden and fill it with compost (this is called "side dressing"). The nutrients will leach into the soil and be beneficial to the plant.

Obviously, this is a simple intro to composting. To really get your hands dirty, we recommend these links: Household Composting posted at Dave's Garden, Composting posted at EarthEasy, and of course the book mentioned earlier, Let it Rot by Stu Campbell. Good luck with your compost pile!

Chris and Rebekah of Liberated Family have two boys. They enjoy preparing traditional foods, growing our own food, parenting our kids, natural remedies, and a simple lifestyle.

They believe a liberated family is one that frees itself from the unwritten rules and restrictions placed on it, mostly by society. How does a family do this? Click over to their blog to find out!

Liberated Family focuses on natural childbirth, natural parenting, traditional foods, unschooling, unjobbing, living simply, and eliminating excess waste.

I can tell you personally that the Liberated Family are a very peaceful family with whom to spend time. They are an inspiration for peaceful parenting and green living. You can also find their hand-crafted toys on Etsy at Born at Home Toys.
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