Composting is finally catching on and is no longer just for the oddball neighbor down the street. To the novice, composting may be confusing and even mysterious; however, done correctly, it can be an enjoyable way of recycling waste into something useful. While tossing apple cores or banana peels into the garbage without much thought is easy, there’s a better place for food scraps to end up than in one of Richland County’s two landfills, along with other household trash. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that yard trimmings and food residuals make up 27 percent of the country’s municipal waste streams – waste that could be turned into valuable soil amendment. Composting is nature’s process of breaking down organic materials such as food, yard trimmings, wood waste and paper products into rich soil. Recycling organic waste such as fruit peelings, coffee grounds and even cardboard can create nutrient rich compost for gardens while reducing waste. Home composting is simple and a great way to be green-wise while reaping major benefits right in the back yard.
Location and Equipment
Most compost piles aren’t aesthetic masterpieces, so start by picking the right spot in the yard. Choose an area that’s easily accessible, and be mindful of its distance from the kitchen considering the walk to take out food waste will occur frequently. In order for the pile to produce enough heat, the dimensions should be a minimum of three feet long by three feet wide. Since Columbia experiences rather hot temperatures, it’s best to choose an area in a shady spot so the pile doesn’t dry out too quickly. Look for a level area that drains well.
Christy Getz, a beginner composter, says, “I keep a container with an airtight lid in my cupboard for kitchen scraps and usually empty it every other day,” she says. The family started their compost pile in the back yard for aesthetic reasons; however, Christy now says it would have been more convenient to have it closer to the side door located off the kitchen.
“I had no idea how much waste we were throwing in the trash can each week until I started composting,” she says. “I was most surprised that there was no rotten smell, which I had expected.”
Composting can also be done using store bought composting bins, which can start at $100. Bins allow for more control over oxygen, water, food and temperature. A wide selection of bins is available depending on your needs. The tumbling or spinning bin typically sits above ground and is turned by a handle. These can often produce compost in roughly a month. Keeping animals from snacking on compost is one of the advantages of using an enclosed bin.
Robin Dean has been gardening in her Hollywood/Rose Hill yard for years. She uses an enclosed bin for composting and turns the material regularly with a small shovel. “There are patches in the front yard that have benefited greatly from a layer or two of compost,” says Robin. “We don’t use chemical fertilizers or miracle elixirs.”
Stationary bins or containers are options for those with moderate to large amounts of waste and come in all sizes. The disadvantage to stationary bins is that it’s often difficult to turn or aerate the waste. A pitchfork or aerating tool will help circulate materials which will allow the pile retain moisture.
Margaret Perkins, a home gardener, is fond of the rich humus produced from composting. She has both a tumbling bin that’s turned by hand and a compost pile located on bare ground. “Sometimes my bin gets too heavy to turn so I’ll toss kitchen scraps in the pile,” she says. “Occasionally; however, animals help themselves to the newly-formed humus before I do.”
Margaret’s father passed along his love for vegetable gardening to his family. “My father had these little piles scattered throughout the wooded area in our back yard,” she says. Margaret admits she didn’t realize what they were until she started composting as an adult. “I have a deeper appreciation for what he was up to with those piles.”
She thinks of her compost as nourishment for the soil. “It’s such a pleasure to create more of the soil that grows our food,” she says. “It’s just an amazing soil-building process.”
Know What to Throw
Compost piles are quite forgiving, and the home composter really doesn’t have to focus on precise ratios of ingredients. The casual pile will break down just by simply throwing in yard and food waste, watering occasionally and waiting.
Margaret composts coffee filters, yard trimmings and all kinds of produce waste. She even confessed to scooping up the neighbor’s grass trimmings from the curbside when her compost was in need of nitrogen. However, before composting the neighbor’s yard waste, she recommends knowing whether they use pesticides or chemicals on the yard.
Not all kitchen scraps are appropriate for composting. Meat, fish, dairy products and oils may cause problems by attracting rodents and other scavenging animals. Strong odors from meats and oils signal to larger scavengers that something good is buried just beneath the pile.
Oils and fats also act as preservatives and generally do not compost well. These items disturb the nutrient-rich structure of the pile and actually slow down the process of decomposition.
Also keep out ashes from grills and fireplaces, weeds, fecal matter from pets and any diseased plants from the garden. Think in terms of two primary colors: browns and greens. Browns such as dry leaves, straw, pine needles and paper products are organic matter high in carbon. Organisms use this element as energy to break down the contents of the compost pile.
Greens are high in nitrogen and referred to as “greens” because they are fresh and moist, not because of the color. These include produce scraps, coffee grounds and filters and leafy plants. The best strategy to use when mixing materials is two parts green to one part brown. In gardening lingo this balance is referred to as the carbon:nitrogen ratio.
These ratios can be achieved by adding two parts of green materials to one part of brown matter to the pile or bin. Many composters simply go for equal parts and end up with nice rich soil. The key is not to have too much of either material.
Speeding Up the Process
To speed up the process of decomposition in a composting pile or bin, chop larger pieces of food scraps into small pieces. Turn the pile every two weeks to increase airflow and add oxygen, which will allow the pile to heat up more quickly.
The best way to tell if a compost pile is working is to take its temperature. Most microorganisms do their best work between 120 and 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Garden supply stores sell simple compost thermometers; however, some beginner composters find this too complicated. Ultimately, Mother Nature will do her part if gardeners do theirs. Turn the pile and keep adding organic materials to it. Fresh compost will be the reward within two to three months.
Open Up a Can of Worms
Gardeners looking to produce rich hummus in a short period of time should look into vermicomposting. This method of recycling organic waste employs earthworms like Red Wigglers, the Cadillac of worms, as the main processing agent. This system involves mixing bedding, such as moist shredded newspapers with food scraps, and earthworms. The worms eat their own weight in organic matter, leaving behind rich compost known as castings. Master gardeners call it black gold.
Getting started involves a two-foot by three-foot bin and roughly one pound of worms. Bins should be approximately 18 inches deep and contain drainage holes. Worms suitable for composting can be purchased at most garden centers, bait shops or through mail order. Begin by layering the bottom with an eight-inch layer of brown matter. Moisten the bedding before adding it to the bin and top with a shovelful of garden soil. Finally, gently add worms and greens or food scraps.
The Richland County Master Gardeners Association maintains a unique composting demonstration garden at the Clemson Sandhill Research and Education Center located at 900 Clemson Rd. Various compost bins are on display and operational. The nearby Carolina Children’s Garden benefits from the compost created at this site.
Chanda Cooper, an Education Program Coordinator with the Richland County Conservation Department, works with schools on outdoor composting projects as well as indoor vermicomposting.
As an outreach service of the Richland Soil and Water Conservation District (RSWCD), Chanda shares a “Traveling Trunk” of vermicomposting materials with local classrooms. She offers workshops that help students establish their own vermicomposting bins.
For additional resources, including educational grant opportunities, visit the Richland Soil and Water Conservation website at http://www.richlandonline.com/departments/Conservation/conservation.htm.
South Carolina DHEC also offers an informative publication called the Smart Gardener Handbook that offers tips on going green at home. The booklet dedicates an entire chapter on composting organic waste at home. A copy can be downloaded at http://www.scdhec.gov/environment/lwm/recycle/pubs/sb_handbook_all.pdf.
Clemson Extension also has excellent tutorials on composting and fact sheets located on their Home and Garden site at http://www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/. Extension agents are available to answer questions.