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Cheat Sheet

Composting For Dummies

From Composting For Dummies by Cathy Cromell, The National Gardening Association

By composting food scraps, yard waste, and other ingredients, you create nutrient-rich compost to add to your garden and landscape, and you minimize the waste sent to landfills. Home composting is a great way to be greener and do something good for the environment while seeing major benefits right at home.

Benefits of Adding Compost to Your Garden

Composting provides you with rich organic matter that does wonders to improve the quality of your garden soil. Whether you sprinkle compost on the surface of the soil or work it in, your garden plants and landscape will grow healthier and stronger thanks to the addition. Your garden benefits from compost in the following ways:

  • Incorporates organic matter to feed microorganisms and macroorganisms that maintain a healthy soil food web

  • Enriches soil with nutrients for plant growth

  • Releases nutrients slowly so they don’t leach away as some synthetic fertilizers do

  • Improves soil structure

  • Promotes drainage and aeration in clay soil

  • Enhances moisture and nutrient retention in sandy soil

  • Reduces soil compaction

  • Inhibits erosion

  • Suppresses soil-borne diseases and pests

  • Attracts earthworms, nature’s best soil builders

Shopping for Composting Tools

You need very little equipment to start composting. Before you buy, visit garden centers or home improvement and hardware stores and try out some hand tools. Their length and weight should be comfortable for you to wield over extended periods of turning or shoveling organic matter. The basic tools to get you started composting are

  • Compost fork or pitchfork: Long, thin tines allow you to hoist and toss large loads of organic matter efficiently.

  • Shovel or spade: These tools help you turn almost-finished compost or incorporate finished compost into your garden. If you already own either one, you’re set.

  • Hose and spray nozzle: Moisture is an essential component of a fast-acting compost pile. Your hose should reach easily from the outdoor faucet to your compost area. Add an adjustable nozzle that allows you to fine-tune the spray level, and turn it off to conserve water while you’re adding or mixing organic matter.

Mix in Brown and Green Compost Ingredients

Organic matter high in carbon — what composters commonly call browns — provides energy for decomposer organisms as they consume and break down the contents of your compost pile. Organic matter high in nitrogen — called greens — supplies the decomposers with protein. Maintain well-fed composting organisms with these varied ingredients.

BrownsGreens
Dry leaves Kitchen scraps
Woody plant trimmings Coffee grounds and filters
Straw Leafy plant trimmings
Pine needles Grass clippings
Sawdust Manure
Paper products Feathers, fur, and hair

Items to Keep Out of Your Compost

Your compost pile isn’t a trash can. Some materials definitely don’t qualify as compost ingredients because they contain pathogens, attract pests, or cause other problems. You must take care to add only the right organic ingredients to feed the decomposition process. Leave out the following items:

  • Ashes from charcoal barbecues: Dispose of this residue in the trash, not your compost pile or bin. It contains sulfur oxides and other chemicals you don’t want to incorporate into your compost.

  • Ashes from fireplaces or wood stoves: Small amounts of ash (a few handfuls per pile) are okay if you have acidic soil. Never use wood ashes if your soil is alkaline, however, because the ash increases alkalinity.

  • Disease- or insect-infested plant material: Pathogens and pests can survive the composting process if the heap doesn’t get hot enough. Just leave this material out — better safe than sorry!

  • Meat, bones, grease, fats, oils, or dairy products: This kitchen waste may turn rancid and attract rodents and other pests.

  • Waste: Feces from cats (including soiled litter), dogs, birds, pigs, and humans may contain harmful pathogens that aren’t killed during decomposition.

  • Weeds with seed heads: Toss the leafy foliage into your compost as a source of green nitrogen, but send weed seeds to the trash. If seeds survive the decomposition process, they’ll sprout wherever you spread finished compost.

Surefire Tips for Speedy Compost

A great thing about composting is that it can take as much or as little time as you want or need it to. If your time is limited and you want to speed up the process to get compost fast, follow these tips:

  • Increase the surface area of your ingredients. Before adding it to your compost, chop, shred, crack, whack, and smack organic matter into small pieces. (It’s a good stress reliever!) Your effort increases total surface area and creates open wounds in the materials, allowing soil organisms easy access to begin consuming and breaking them down.

  • Take the damp sponge test. Starting a compost pile with too-dry ingredients or allowing ingredients to dry out without remoistening is a direct route to slow decomposition. Fast-acting compost piles contain about 40 to 60 percent water. Squeeze handfuls of compost from various sections of the pile to check its moisture level. Everything should feel like a wrung-out sponge. Turn and rewet materials as needed to maintain this level of moisture.

  • Air it out. Soil organisms require oxygen just as you do. When air supplies are depleted, the organisms die without reproducing in sufficient numbers to keep decomposition zipping along. Keep the little critters in your compost pile well-supplied with oxygen by turning the pile completely every week or two (or three).

    If your time is limited, stick a compost fork or aerating tool into the pile to stir things up. This action doesn’t generate as much oxygen throughout the pile as a total turnover, but it does an acceptable job and only takes a minute or two.

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