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Composting at Home
Article by: Jessica Warren, ANR Agent, Camden County

As we try to create more sustainable and lower maintenance home landscapes, one of the greatest, cheapest and easiest tools available to us is composting. Composting is the recycling of organic materials where organic components of the solid waste stream are decomposed to produce a useful end product. Composting creates a soil amendment that improves soil quality, provides nutrients to plants and keeps a significant amount of household waste out of the landfill – drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Composting mimics the natural decomposition process found on the forest floor that builds nutrient rich soils through breaking down once living materials into rich humus. In addition to reducing the amount of waste going to the landfill – and the number of times that you have to take out the trash – this can also lead to trash that is less smelly. Composting saves money on fertilizer as well as other soils amendments such as organic matter, and in some areas can lower citizens’ garbage fees.

Composting can be as passive or active as you like, and as cheap or expensive as you like. Personally, I’m a pretty lazy composter. No matter how active of a composter you are, the recipe for success remains the same. You’ll need 1/3 nitrogen sources (termed greens), 2/3 carbon sources (termed browns), air, moisture and (naturally occurring) microorganisms. Examples of greens are fruit and vegetable scraps and grass clippings. Examples of browns are dry leaves, straw and sticks and twigs. Compostable items include grass clippings, leaves, twigs, tree and shrub pruning debris, flowers, sawdust, fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, tea bags and eggshells. Items that should not be composted are dairy products, meat, bones, dog or cat manure, oils or other cooking fats, mayonnaise, whole eggs, weed seeds or rhizomes, invasive plants and diseased or insect ridden plants. Keep in mind that the microorganisms that you’re depending on to break things down prefer an acidic environment, so never add lime to your compost. The pH of finished compost is usually 6.5-7.0 which is the perfect range for the garden. Compost should be damp but not wet, like a wrung-out sponge. Moisture helps compost to breakdown faster, as does turning it more often to increase air circulation. If your compost is too moist you can add browns to reduce moisture. Heat is also important (which is produced during the decomposition process), but that’s not a concern here in Camden.

There are several different composting methods as well as containment systems. Sheet composting involves spreading a 2-6 inch layer of compostable materials directly on your garden beds, letting them slowly break down until you can plant directly in them or turn them into the soil.  To trench compost, dig a trench about 12 inches deep, fill with compost, chop and mix with soil, then cover with remaining soil. This is most often done between garden rows. A similar process can be done with holes instead of a trench. This is often called com-posthole-ing. There are also indoor processes such as vermi-composting (worm composting) and bokashi, but we won’t cover those here.

The most popular and common composting is done with a backyard pile or bin. A compost pile is exactly what it sounds like and is the cheapest and easiest way to go. A pile can be easily turned with a pitchfork and added to as needed. Many people compost livestock manure this way.  To keep things a little tidier, simple hoops or bins can be formed with a variety of materials ranging from fencing materials to pallets or cement blocks. Just keep in mind that you’ll need to be able to access the compost to turn it regularly. Because of this, three sided square bins are a popular design. For those in dense neighborhoods and areas with HOAs, a purchased bin or tumbler might be best. These keep composting areas more out of sight and aesthetically pleasing. Purchased bins and tumblers can also be helpful if you live in a neighborhood with a lot of rodents. Though rodents aren’t usually attracted to properly managed piles (materials such as meat, dairy and bones will attract them), I have seen a couple of issues with open piles in neighborhoods with dense rodent populations since the critters are so desperate for resources. Tumblers are pest proof, avoid odors (which you won’t have with a properly managed pile), increase warmth, retain moisture and make turning a breeze. However, they often tend to stay too wet so you may need to leave the door open for increased air flow occasionally or add extra brown materials.

Your compost is ready to harvest when it looks like rich black soil. The time to harvest will vary depending on how often you turn the pile and the size of the materials that you add (the bigger the size of your materials, the longer it will take for them to break down). Some people prefer a bin or tumbler with multiple compartments so that they can add to one side while letting the other side decompose. Others prefer to have one compartment and sift out the large unfinished pieces to add back to the bin or pile when harvesting. Regardless of the composting style and structures you choose, composting can be a simple and rewarding task that helps the environment while improving your garden or lawn. The nutrient rich organic matter produced by composting is far superior to any store-bought fertilizer or amendment. Happy composting!