What is Compost?
Decomposition is the process through which organic matter, like leaves and vegetables, breaks down naturally in order to return valuable nutrients to the soil. Compost results from the creation of an ideal environment for fungus, bacteria, worms, and other organisms to aid in the decomposition process. These organisms “eat” their way through the organic material and what’s left behind is nutrient-rich soil, also referred to as “black gold”. This soil is ideal for gardening.
The Benefits of Composting.
Composting provides a lot of benefits to the household, local community, and the greater environment.
Households in the United States (US) create a lot of garbage. 292 million tons to be exact. At a cost of $53.72 per ton, we spend $15.6 billion dollars a year on processing solid waste in landfills. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 30% of what we throw away could be composted. That translates to $4.7 billion dollars every year. This money could certainly be spent more effectively.
The effect we, as humans, are having on the environment is undeniable. Erosion and greenhouse gasses are causing trillions of dollars worth of damage and putting increased pressure on the ecosystems we rely on. Now that these issues a generally recognized as facts, public utilities and private businesses are embarking on huge infrastructure projects to curb our influence on the environment, but we all have a role we can play. Composting is one of the best practices you can implement at home to make a positive impact.
There are two types of decomposition. Aerobic, “with air”, uses oxygen, and anaerobic, “without air”, uses no oxygen. Both methods produce the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide in small quantities. However; anaerobic decomposition also creates methane, which is very harmful in terms of global climate change. Why is this important? When you throw fruits and vegetables away in a landfill they are covered by tons of other garbage. The top layer of garbage prevents adequate oxygen from reaching the levels underneath. This in turn causes anaerobic decomposition and methane is produced. Methane is 28-36 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere and landfills are the 3rd largest contributor to methane emissions.
Over time storms, floods and other naturally occurring events cause topsoil to be removed. The removal of topsoil, or erosion, makes it difficult for plants to grow. Because there are no roots to hold the soil together and no plant decomposition to replace the soil the problem intensifies and eventually you are left with bare infertile land. In coastal areas, this can also lead to the land being overtaken by nearby bodies of water.
According to an article published by The University of Georgia, applying compost will improve vegetation growth, and in turn, prevent erosion by up to 86%. Depending on your property, you can blanket (spread compost) to promote healthy vegetation growth. After you spread compost, seed the area with a ground cover well suited for your geographical location. For properties with greater potential for erosion, especially larger properties with steep slopes, you may need a more engineered solution. A compost filter beam is used to allow water to runoff but filters out the soil to prevent the area from eroding.
Last but certainly not least, compost is great for growing and maintaining flowers and food. Compost is full of nutrients plants need. As they grow, plants and vegetables pull nutrients out of the ground. When we pick the fruit, we are taking those nutrients for ourselves. By composting, we can use the parts we don’t eat to replace the missing nutrients and enjoy our gardens year after year.
How to Start Composting
There are two types of composting, hot and cold. Cold composting is passive. The benefit of cold composting is you don’t have to do anything. Just add the ingredients to your compost pile and let it decompose naturally. There are a lot of downsides to this method. The main issue is that the compost doesn’t get hot and therefore doesn’t kill any pathogens, like Ecoli, that might be living in the compost pile. As a result, you cannot use cold compost for food production. Since cold composting relies on anaerobic decomposition, it is going to take up to two years to fully decompose, and it will smell like cow farts.
For the reasons listed above, let’s focus on how to use the hot method to compost. The key to composting is maintaining the right levels of carbon and nitrogen. To do this we need to provide the living organisms that reside in the compost the right amounts of nitrogen and carbon as well as maintain the flow of air and moisture levels. The appropriate ratio of carbon to nitrogen is about 30 to 1 respectively.
To make it easy let’s strip away all the scientific terms. Instead of carbon and nitrogen, you’ll want to add “browns” and “greens”. Browns are things like dead leaves or even cardboard. Greens are colorful plant matter like vegetable waste, grass clippings, and coffee grounds (even though they are brown 🙄 ). You want your compost to be made up of mostly browns. If your compost seems dry and is taking a long time to decompose, then add more greens. Alternatively, if it’s wet and smelly, add more browns.
Once you get your ratio of browns to greens nailed down, you just need to control moisture and air. If you are using food waste in your compost then you should have plenty of moisture. The compost should have the same moisture level as a wrung-out sponge. Grab a handful full of dirt and squeeze it. No water should drip out, but the material should clump together and leave a residue on your hand when you drop it. If there isn’t enough moisture, simply add some water and mix it in. In the event the pile is too wet, add some dried leaves, paper, or twigs.
Air Flow Management
To maintain proper aeration you’ll need to turn your pile consistently throughout the decomposition process. About once a week you can turn your pile manually or use a compost tumbler. You can also increase airflow by adding PVC pipes (with holes drilled at 4 O’clock and 8’ O’clock along the entire length) or large branches underneath the pile.
Once you achieve the right balance of carbon, nitrogen, water, and air, you too can become Captain Planet. There are a ton of benefits to composting at home. Composting improves community finances, helps prevent climate change, stops coastal erosion, and it will help you grow a kick-ass garden. “The power is yours”.