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Composting 101

Composting 101

Composting is nature's magic, taking a bit of trash and turning it into treasure. When you compost, your kitchen scraps, grass cuttings, leaves and other organic waste become a nutrient-rich soil that feeds your garden while reducing your contribution to landfills. Though your local garden store may sell compost by the bag, it's much less expensive to make your own.

Composting is the simple, biological process of breaking down organic matter into humus, a thick, dark soil rich in minerals and other plant nutrients. There are lots of ways to compost, but they all boil down to three basic methods: 

  • Cold composting: Pile up dry plant matter – leaves, grass, cardboard, or dead plants to decompose over time.
  • Hot composting: Mix dry and wet organic waste, like kitchen leftovers, in a compost pile or bin. You'll stir the mixture regularly to aerate it, which will create heat and speed up the decomposition process.
  • Vermicomposting or vermiculture: This type of composting uses worms to create beneficial bacteria that will break down your organic waste. Vermicomposting is done in special containers, and is very popular among apartment dwellers.

Cold & Hot Composting

  • Build your bin: If you have some free space outdoors, build a small compost bin close to your garden, kitchen, or other source of raw materials. Your compost pile can be as simple as chicken wire wrapped around a few posts, or a rustic wood cube. If you're short on space, you can even use a trash can or other type of container.
  • Open or closed: Open bins are easy because they collect rainwater and are always open to receive new materials. However, they attract flies, mosquitoes and other insects and can be more difficult to mix. Closed bins are generally more attractive and are easy to turn for aeration, but you'll have to add water and you may have trouble turning the container when it gets full and heavy.
  • Tools: In addition to your compost bin, you'll need a turning fork, compost thermometer, wheelbarrow or other tool for moving your waste into the bin, and a shovel. These tools will help you keep your compost healthy and ready for use.

Common materials to add to a cold compost pile are dried leaves, hay, straw, cardboard, sawdust, and corn husks. To produce rich compost faster, always shred your dry ingredients into small pieces. For hot composting, you can use any dry ingredients and also food scraps, grass cuttings from your lawnmower, weeds, rotting fruits, and fresh manure. Never add meat, fish, animal fats, dog or cat waste, newspaper or magazines, or ashes from your barbecue.

Worm Composting

The technical name for worm composting is vermiculture or vermicomposting. This is a speedy method and is very popular where space is limited. All you'll need is a small or medium-sized bin and your wet and dry organic waste. You can buy the bin for less than $100 and a full supply of red worms for about $40.

Once you have your supplies, pick a spot for your composting bin – your balcony, backyard, or even under the kitchen sink– and start adding your organic trash. The bacteria in red worms can digest any plant fiber, and these helpful creatures will each produce their body weight in compost everyday. Before long, your veggie scraps, old fruits and unwanted paper will be feeding your windowsill herb garden and indoor ornamentals. Now that's a great use for junk mail!