Composting is a process of reusing your leftover food scraps and yard waste to produce fertilizer. It’s a great way to improve the health of your backyard and reduce the amount of organic waste going to the landfill or waste-to-energy facility.
Right now, 50% of trash going to the landfill is compostable, which includes 60 billion pounds of wasted food every year. When food scraps are thrown away in the garbage they end up in a landfill where they break down inefficiently, taking up large amounts of space and emitting greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change. When these materials are composted instead, they are recycled into a soil amendment rich with valuable nutrients that can benefit soil and plants.
Composting turns waste into “black gold.” Compost is nutrient-rich organic matter that has decomposed in the presence of oxygen (aerobic digestion). This process of decomposition is called composting, starting a process of regenerative cycling and ultimately benefiting the entire nutrient cycle. At home, you can use compost for your lawn, garden, or house plants.
What are the benefits of composting?
- Increases the organic matter in soil and helps build sound root structure.
- Balances the pH of the soil.
- Makes nutrients in soil more readily available to plants.
- Diverts food waste from the landfills.
- Attracts earthworms, considered the “earth’s greatest recyclers.”
- Makes clay soils airy so that they can drain better.
- Improves the ability of sandy soils to hold moisture and resist erosion.
- Raises the vitamin and mineral content of food grown in a compost-rich garden.
- Reduces reliance on petroleum-based fertilizers.
What do I need to compost?
Composting is easy to do at home, and can reduce your disposal costs and benefit your home gardens. Healthy composting requires these four elements to work together:
- Temperature: Bacteria in a compost pile create heat as they work and grow. The best temperature for speedy composting is about 140 °F at the center of the pile. To maintain good temperatures, an ideal compost pile should be at least 3’x3’x3′. You can start a small pile and build as you go.
- Oxygen: Aerobic, “oxygen-loving” organisms work quickly and without odors. If a compost pile does not have enough air, anaerobic organisms will take over and odors will develop. Encourage aerobic decomposition by turning the pile whenever you add materials. Mix in dry leaves or straw to discourage matting down or compression.
- Moisture: All organisms, including those in a compost pile, need water for growth. A dry compost pile will decompose slowly. If it is too wet, the oxygen supply will be limited, and anaerobic decomposition could occur. You may need to add water or dry materials after dry or wet spells of weather. Do the “Squeeze Test” – composting materials should be about as moist as a wrung-out sponge.
- Food/Materials: The creatures that do the work of decomposition view our waste as their food. Microscopic organisms need a mixture of carbon and nitrogen to grow and reproduce. Generally, “green” or wet materials are high in nitrogen (decompose rapidly), while “brown”, dry or woody materials are high in carbon (break down slowly). Prepare materials before you put them into the pile by chopping up stalks, vines, large twigs, straw or hay, consider running the lawnmower over leaves to reduce their size and always remove litter from any yard waste.
What kind of materials can I put into my home compost?
An ideal compost pile will have a 3:1 Balance of Carbon (browns) to Nitrogen (greens).
Carbon-rich materials include: dry leaves, straws, hay, shredded paper, cardboard, newspaper, brush, sawdust, pine needles.
Nitrogen-rich materials include: food scraps, grass clippings, weeds, eggshells, coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, manure.
Do not add dairy, meat, fats, bones, oils, pet waste, or seafood scraps into your home compost. These items can cause a bad odor and attract pests to your compost. Also, “compostable” plastics cannot be added to your home compost and should either be sent to an industrial compost facility or into the trash.
Pine needles have a high acid content and are good to use as mulch on acid-loving plants such as strawberries or rhododendrons. Pine needles take a long time to fully compost. No more than 10% of a pile should be pine needles at one time.
Wood ashes should be used cautiously; they have a high alkaline level. However, they do provide potash, a valuable nutrient for your garden. Add ashes to your compost pile in small quantities – no more than a quarter of an inch at a time.
Grass clippings should stay on your lawn to keep it healthy. If you collect and compost grass clippings, mix them well with a bulky “brown” material to keep them from becoming compacted and smelly.
What kind of bin do I need to compost?
You can either purchase one or create your own. Many Massachusetts communities sell subsidized compost bins to residents, so check with your town/city if they have these available. Otherwise, you can buy them at a hardware store or online. You can also create your own bin from different materials ranging from wood pallets, garbage bins, or wire fencing.
What if I rent/don’t have an outdoor space for my compost?
Vermicomposting is a great option for indoor compost, or making your compost break down faster. Using red wiggler worms that you can buy online, and lining your compost bin with shredded or moist paper, your worms can thrive within a compost bin. Keep it cool and moist for healthy worms. It takes about 12 weeks for the compost to be finished. Click here to learn more about vermicomposting.
How do I know if compost is finished?
Finished compost is a brown, crumbly, earthy-smelling, soil-like material. It takes between six months and one year for a pile to yield a finished product, depending on how much attention it is given. You should not be able to recognize the waste materials that went into the pile. For best use, you can screen it before use for finer compost and put under-composed materials back into the pile to break down further.
What can I do with finished compost?
- Work it directly into garden soil (improves structure, adds nutrients).
- Sprinkle it on the lawn to keep it green without much water.
- Apply it around trees to feed the roots and reduce water needs.
- Apply it directly to the garden a few times a year as a mulch.
- Mix with potting soil for indoor gardening needs.
- If you don’t have a garden, donate it to a school or community garden.
Can I compost through the winter?
Although the process will slow down in cold weather, some bacteria activity will continue. Food waste can still be added as long as it is covered each time with leaves or straw. You can further insulate your pile by covering it with thick, dark plastic.
What should I do with leaves that don’t fit in my bin?
To decrease the volume of leaves, run the lawn mower over them before adding them to the pile, or wet them down and cover with a tarp to keep them from blowing away. Add them to your compost bin throughout the year to cover food waste or to provide “brown” materials for your composting recipe. Leaves and yard waste (not food waste) can easily be composted in a pile without using a bin.