In the old Brothers Grimm tale Rumpelstiltskin, a miller swears to the king that his daughter can spin straw into golda bold-faced lie.With the help of the eponymous imp and his magical powers, the daughter was eventually able to spew gold from her very fingers. But, she had to promise her firstborn child to him in order to receive the special talent.
In the real world there is one way to turn straw into gold, so to speak, that doesnt require any special powers or bargaining with a frightful creatureits known as composting. Creating organic fertilizer from food scraps happens to be much easier than most people think. Heres everything you need to know:
Photo Credit: Paul Delmont
WHAT IS COMPOSTING?
In basic terms, composting means recycling plant scraps from the kitchenincluding carrot tops, potato peels, herb stems, celery fronds, eggshells, coffee grounds, used tea bagsall in the effort to minimize waste and to make garden fertilizer. The process transforms such food scraps, which would have normally ended up in the garbage, into a nutrient-rich mulch that can be added to soil and help you grow even more fruits and vegetables, thereby perpetuating the cycle. Now thatssustainability at its finest.
How it works
As organic materials decompose, they break down into nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassiumthe same compounds plants need to thrive. Brown matter, like dead leaves and branches, provide carbon while green matter, like vegetables and fruits, provide nitrogen. Compost piles and bins ideally consist ofthree parts brown matter to one part green matter.
When these organic materials are exposed to air and water, microorganisms likebacteria, actinobacteria, fungi, protozoa, and earthwormsstart to break them down into compost. Carbon gives these microbes energy, and nitrogen facilitatesprotein synthesisa biological process where individual cells build up their specific proteins..
After these microorganisms break down the plant matter, what youre left with is a substance calledhumus(no, not hummus) which basically looks, smells, and feels like dark, moist soil. Spread a thick layer of it on top of the soil in your garden and watch your plants flourish! (Well get to more specifics below.)
Reduces and recycles kitchen and yard waste
One of the greatest benefits of composting is giving food scraps and yard waste another life. Instead of going straight to a landfillwhere40 percent of all food produced in the U.S. ends uptheyll serve a new purpose and nourish your garden naturally and even help you to cultivate more food.
Good for the environment
Compost can serve as a natural alternative to chemical fertilizers, which oftenseep into groundwater and end up polluting waterways.
Conditions and fertilizes soil
Compost helps give soil a softer, looser texture, which allows water and nutrients to reach the plants roots more efficiently. Its all thanks to those beneficial microorganisms, which can evenkill pathogensand prevent plant disease, according to theEnvironmental Protection Agency.
Photo Credit: Paul Delmont
WHAT TO COMPOST
Heres what can (and cant) go into your compost heap,according to the EPAandRodales Organic Life.
These are generally dry ingredients that are rich in carbon:
These tend to be wet and are rich in nitrogen:
Coffee grounds and filters
Freshwater aquarium water
Grains (cooked, plain)
These materials may be harmful to the health of your compost:
Black walnut tree leaves and twigs
Dryer or vacuum lint from synthetic fabrics
Fats or oils
Glossy paper (especially with color printing)
Meat or fish scraps or bones
HOW TO COMPOST
Its easy to start composting at home. Whether you have a big backyard or live in an apartment with minimal outdoor space, heres how to do it.
Composting in a backyard
1. Pick a spot
The first step is to pick a dry, sunlit area outdoors and near a water source (like a garden hose). Since compost tends to be smelly, be mindful and choose a spot where the appearance or smell wont bother your neighbors. Its best to keep it far away from anywhere you eat or entertain, too. You should also avoid placing it near the house or any other wooden structures, as the decomposing materials can rot wood.
2. Dig a hole or buy a compost bin
If you dont mind letting your compost heap sit exposed, its a good idea to dig a hole in the ground to make it easier to manage. Make sure the hole measures at least 3 x 3 x 3.
You can buy a holding unit or bin at Thrive Market, likethis one here. Or you can get crafty and check out how tomake a DIY version. A closed bin with a lid also worksjust drill holes into the lid to allow air in, and add your own worms (you can pick those up at home and garden stores, too).
3. Start adding organic materials
Add compostable materials in alternating layers, starting with brown matter, then green matter, and some brown again. Try to maintain a ratio of three parts carbon (brown) to one part nitrogen (green). Too much carbon can slow down the decomposition, while too much nitrogen can make the pile slimy, smelly, and difficult to aerate.
4. Turn and add water
If you arent continually adding new matter, let it sit for five weeks. Then, turn it with a pitchfork or rake to oxygenate the mixture, and add enough water to dampen the pile. (Excess moisture hinders airflow, and too little prevents the microorganisms you need to start decomposition from thriving.) Leave it for three or four months longeritll turn into dark, moist soil, which is your key to know its ready to use.
Most people, however, tend to add new materials throughout the year. In this case, whenever you add new food waste or kitchen scraps, bury it to incorporate. Turn and moisten the pile at least every four to five weeks, but keep in mind that turning more often can really speed up the decomposition process.
Composting indoors or in an apartment
No backyard? No problem. You can make your own small-scale composting system indoorsand you dont even need worms. Heres how:
What you need
Small trash bin with a lid
Tray that fits underneath trash bin
Choose a space to keep your compost bin. (Under the sink works well.)
Poke or drill a few holes on the bottom and around the rim of the bin.
Cover tray with newspaper and place the bin in the tray.
Add a layer of soil, a few inches deep, into the bin.
Add a layer of shredded newspaper into the bin.
Start adding your food scraps (green matter as listed above), along with a handful of newspaper or other brown matter as you go. (If it starts to smell bad, add more brown matter.)
Once a week, mix the pile and add a handful of fresh soil.
Youll know the compost is ready when its broken down into dark, moist soil. Use it as a top layer for potted plants or donate whatever you cant use to a neighborhood garden.
Photo Credit: Paul Delmont
TOP COMPOSTING TIPS
Here are some important things to know before getting started to make your composting a success.
Start your compost in summer:The process works best in heata compost pile that maintains an internal temperature of 130 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit breaks down faster.
Keep a small compost bin in the kitchen:Its a convenient way to collect food scraps without having to run out to the compost pile every time you have something to add. Once your indoor bin is filled, you can throw it all into the pile at once.
Always keep a healthy balance of of carbon to nitrogen (brown to green):Remember its three parts brown to one part green. Too much or too little of either can slow things down.
The smaller the materials, the better:Before adding things into the compost, cut them down to smaller chunks to help them decompose faster.
Dont pack too much waste in:The pile needs air to breathe.
The more green matter you use, the less water you need:Remember that too much water keeps the air from flowing freely through the mixture.
Do not compost pet waste:It can contain parasites.
Do not compost meat, meat scraps, fats or oils:Otherwise pests will come crawling and potentially spread disease through the compost.
Wormsare your friends:When these guys show up, leave them be and let them do their thing. Theyll feed on your food waste and help turn it into the beautiful compost youve been waiting for.
You can compost weeds:Just make sure they dont have seeds, or else you may get some pesky plants cropping up in your garden.
Turn your pile frequently:Aerating the compost as often as every two weeks can really speed up the process.
Keep two separate compost piles:Got a lot of organic material and extra space? Starting a second pile is handy so you can let the original one break down faster while continuing your composting habit.
Add compost to the garden two to four weeks before planting:This allows time for it to meld with the soil. Once youve got it all ready to go, its time to plant theseeds. When beautiful, bright-orange carrots grow in, youll be pretty happy you didnt trash those old peels.
Written by Emily Murphy, and reposted with permission fromThrive Market.
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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.
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How to Compost at Home