Denise is a devoted organic gardener who challenges herself to live as sustainably as possible in her home in southeastern Pennsylvania. She is a professor in the Department of Communication and Media at West Chester University with a Ph.D. from Kent State University. Her teaching and research areas consist of sustainability, close interpersonal relationships, integrating work and family, and conflict resolution.
The Amazon rainforest is masterful at recycling plant nutrients. It has to be. Soils in Amazonia are notoriously poor in nutrients with the vast majority within the biomass of the forest itself. It is incumbent on the forest to vigorously recycle nutrients. Elsewhere, though, even if soils are rich in nutrients, recycling them is valuable to maintaining or restoring functioning landscapes…like food gardens. With the growing season winding down in temperate climates and gardens being cleaned and rested for the next growing season composting is a valuable tool for the leftover waste, not to mention a way to recycle food scraps throughout the year.
The average American produces just under five pounds of trash daily, with about a pound of it being food waste. That’s about 30-40% of the food supply according to the USDA and totals about 108 billion pounds with a value of $161 billion. Of that food waste, about 95% of it is sent to landfills or incinerated.
When I was in college, I once drove by a landfill where one portion of it had collapsed. The stench was stifling. That rotting organic material could be put to better use. The EPA has a food hierarchy for the most preferable ways to handle that food. Of course, most preferable is not to waste it in the first place. Preferable over sending to a landfill is composting.
There’s a reason compost is often referred to as black gold. I credit much of my garden’s success to the use of compost. When I started building the garden, I had to pull up the sod, and the soil had a very clay-like consistency. Over time, I was able to build and improve that soil structure through organic amendments, mostly compost.
Compost is not technically fertilizer, since fertilizer is based on petrochemicals and has very specific ratios of the three chemicals NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium), and is an excellent way to feed plants and improve the soil. It releases nutrients slowly whereas a heavy rain can result in a lot of fertilizer runoff, polluting waterways. It also closes an important loop since what starts as food ends up feeding plants. One cubic yard of quality compost is roughly equivalent to $120 of chemical fertilizer.
Composting is easy to understand – it’s the breakdown of organic material. It can be as simple as throwing materials into a pile and letting them break down on their own. However, with just a little bit of management, it is easy to speed up the process. Compost needs just a few things. The mainstays are carbon (brown material – dried leaves, chipped up twigs, sawdust, etc.) and nitrogen (food scraps, yard clippings, weeds, etc.) as well as water and oxygen. Composting will not break down plastic, glass, or metal. Meat, dairy, fats, and oily products typically are not recommended. They will break down; however, they are likely to attract pests like rodents and are more likely to cause odors if not managed properly.
Ideally, you’ll want the compost to reach 130 degrees F or higher for its peak decomposition which involves microbial activity and also will kill weed seeds. As more material breaks down, the temperature will decrease, it will “cure” and be ready for use. Cutting and chopping materials also helps speed the process.
Luckily for you, there is no single “right” way to compost. Bins can be made using wood pallets and chicken wire or purchased . It’s good to elevate the bin to allow air circulation (a pallet or 6-12 inches of coarse/stalky material), and if you’re making a bin, typically something 3x3x3 feet or larger is recommended.
Creating the pile employs a “lasagna” layering technique, taking care not to allow any food to be exposed at the top. Add a layer of brown material then place green material on top and continue alternating. Brown layers should be about 2-3 times thicker than green layers. That turns out to be roughly 30 parts carbon to every part nitrogen. It’s good to turn the pile once a year which accelerates decomposition. You’d remove the outer layer of brown material and flip the remaining contents into a new bin. Some bins can be tumbled/rolled instead. It still can take a year to generate finished compost depending on how materials are added and how often it is turned.
Finished compost will be moist and crumbly and can be used to “top dress” planted areas, amend soil prior to planting, and be used in potting media. Your plants will thank you!