Backyard Composting Gives Back to Mother Earth
Anagha Kalvade's family is vegetarian and their backyard garden provides much of the food they eat. It's important to the Chapel Hill mom of two sons, ages 6 and 13, that the produce her family eats grows in healthy soil without chemical fertilizers.
Kalvade has been composting for more than 10 years. Twice a year, she "harvests," or removes, the finished compost from their backyard compost bin and adds it to the soil in her garden. The result? An organic, nutrient-rich soil amendment that helps the environment.
Compost for the environment
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports Americans recovered almost 65 million tons of municipal solid waste through recycling in 2010. After recycling, composting is the next logical step to reduce household waste in a landfill.
All material in a municipal landfill, including food waste, is compacted and covered daily. When densely packed organic material does not come in contact with oxygen, anaerobic decomposition results.
"The anaerobic decomposition of organic matter in landfills produces methane, a highly reactive greenhouse gas," explains Muriel Williman, education and outreach coordinator for Orange County Solid Waste Management. Composting does not produce harmful gases because oxygen is available.
Compost results from a biological process in which organic waste, such as kitchen scraps, coffee grounds and dried leaves, are broken down by microorganisms and transformed into a humus-like substance. The composting process relies on carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and water.
Backyard composting may be as basic as placing vegetable trimmings in the middle of a pile of leaves. Williman says this method, sometimes referred to as ditch composting, "is a time-honored tradition." However, she says a container works better because materials will break down more efficiently due to the volume and density a bin provides.
Garden centers, home improvement stores and the Internet are all good places to shop for a backyard bin. Several local jurisdictions also sell the popular "Earth Machine" composting bin for roughly $50.
Rhonda Sherman, an extension solid waste specialist at N.C. State University, recommends a bin with side air vents and a locking lid, so it won't blow open in the wind.
Place the bin in a slightly elevated and sunny spot directly on the soil (not on the grass). Add organic materials to the bin in the following order:
- Base layer: a bed of twigs to allow for airflow.
- Layer of browns (carbon component): dried leaves, shredded paper or shredded chipboard.
- Layer of greens (nitrogen component): fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, tea bags and well-rinsed eggshells.
- Layer of browns: the topmost layer.
Keep layering the pile with greens and browns. Always cover greens with browns to discourage fruit flies and other insects from loitering near the pile.
Do not add meat scraps, dairy products, animal fats, baked goods, anything cooked in oil or butter, or pet or human feces to the pile. These materials attract unwanted pests such as rodents, deer and neighborhood pets. Poison ivy, diseased plants and plants that have gone to seed are also not appropriate composting materials.
Just a little regular upkeep is needed to keep the bin contents actively decomposing. Turn the pile about once a week to reintroduce oxygen into the mix.
Avoid the yuck
Sherman says kitchen scraps stored in a container on the kitchen counter for longer than a few days may get slimy. "I keep food scraps in a big plastic bowl in my freezer," she says. When the bowl is full, she or one of her children takes the scraps outside to the bin. This eliminates what some may view as "the yuck factor" of composting. Also, "freezing predigests the food," Sherman says, by changing the molecular structure of the food and causing it to decompose more quickly.
Common composting errors
One of the most common mistakes people make with their bin contributions is including particle sizes that are too large. While a banana peel may be OK to toss in, it's best to cut up larger kitchen scraps. "A 3-foot-long dead plant that you pull from your garden is like a redwood tree to a micro-organism," Sherman says, adding that pieces should ideally be 2 inches or smaller.
Another common problem is not having enough moisture in the mix. "The pile should be wet. It should have the appearance of a wrung-out sponge," Williman says. Sherman recommends locating the bin close to a hose for easy watering.
Composting isn't necessarily time-consuming. Kalvade spends about 15 minutes per week attending to her family's compost bin. Sherman says you can devote as much or as little time, depending on your goals.
If your priority is to create the best soil amendment for your garden as quickly as possible, you can spend more time
turning and watering the pile. If your goal is to minimize your carbon footprint by keeping food scraps out of the landfill, less time is required.
Even if you leave the pile alone, it will still decompose because, as Sherman likes to say, "Composting happens."
Linda Lavis is an avid composter, a Raleigh mom of one, and a rookie blogger at MainBear.com
Epa.gov/recycle/composting.html – Information on composting, recycling and all things green.
Earthmachine.com – Information about their flagship product and home composting.
Treehugger.com – Tips on composting and instructions on how to build a compost bin.
CompostNow.org – Provides a bin and collects food scraps to turn into compost for a monthly fee.