Making Green Living Logical

Composting is an excellent start for anyone who wishes to “go green”.  Imagine getting rid of some of those bags of leaves at the end of your driveway in October, or putting less food waste in the trash!  Composting is easy to understand and easy to do.  The simplest way is to start piling up all of your yard wastes: cut grass, pulled weeds, down branches, dry leaves, and trimmings.  Include items from each of the two composting categories, green and brown.  Green items include green leaves, grass and plant trimmings, raw fruit and vegetable scraps, and even hair, clean eggshells, bread and coffee grounds.  Brown items include dried plant materials, straw, sawdust (in moderation), wood chips, branches (chipped), wood ashes (sparingly), and shredded newspaper and brown paper grocery bags.  To speed the process, large pieces should be cut smaller (such as branches, melon rinds, or large clumps of weeds).  Also, moldy items are welcome in a compost pile (fruit, veggies, or bread), because that mold is part of the composting process anyway.

The list of what can be composted is quite unlimited, but there are some things that should not be added to the pile.  These include rotten foods, decaying animals (frogs, birds, etc.), meat, dairy, oil, sick plants, salt, weeds gone to seed (think dandelion fluff), pet wastes (or waste from any animal that is not strictly herbivorous), or ashes from coal or charcoal (like from the grill).  Many of these items can introduce non-beneficial bacteria and cause the compost to smell, attracting unwanted pests such as raccoons.  The rest will not break down properly, and will contaminate the compost, making it unusable as fertilizer.  Other items that should not be added to a home composter are bioplastics and cups, plates, and flatware marked “biodegradable” or “compostable”  (except untreated paper or wooden utensils).  These items cannot be composted under normal conditions.  They need to go to special composting centers designed to handle these unique objects.

Why Should I Compost and How Do I Do It?

There are two other elements that must be present to successfully compost: water and air.  In an open pile, water is fairly easy to introduce, as it is supplied by the rain.  During dry spells, water from a hose can be added to keep the pile moist (squeezing a handful of material from the pile should create droplets of water between your fingers).

To add air, the pile must be turned at least once a week, using a pitchfork, heavy garden rake, or shovel.  Most sources state that the ideal length of time between turns is one week, or as soon as steam begins to rise from the pile.  If maintained properly and turned once a week, there should be little odor from the pile.

Some areas do not approve of open compost piles, whether because they don’t look very nice or because they can have a slight odor, or else because they can tend to attract animals and insects.  In any case, for those people who still wish to compost, there are a few options.  There are many types of composting barrels, ranging in price from less than $100 to more than $1000.  Some have a crank and a base so that they may be easily turned, others rest on their sides and can be rolled to turn, or opened and stirred much the same way an open pile would be.  There are various sizes of these barrels, suiting anyone from the person with a tiny patio and yard all the way up to someone with a huge yard and lots of landscaping.

There are even options for the person who lives in an apartment and thinks they cannot compost.  There are small units that can be purchased for indoor use, as wells as vermicomposting, or using worms to do most of the work for you.  The worms eat the organisms that decay the organic matter, and their castings (poop) create a unique and rich fertilizer.  This is ideal for indoor settings, as the worms don’t need much space, just a covered box.  Check out our Vermicomposting page and Building a Worm Bin page for additional information.  Other options for apartment-dwellers, or those in townhomes or with small yards, are to share a barrel or pile with neighbors.  Go together in one location, and share the duties of adding materials and turning the pile.

In a temperate climate, compost will take 3-6 weeks to complete, if the pile is turned regularly.  A general rule of thumb is the temperature: the warmer it is, the more quickly the organics are broken down by the bacteria.  The compost is complete when it has a uniform texture, is black or very dark brown, and has a fresh, clean smell.  It will also stop steaming (if the weather was cool enough for steam to be visible).   Completed compost can be used in many ways: spread around flowerbeds, bushes and trees, use as a layer in new plantings, and use in potted plants.  Compost can be used indoors as well, but be aware that insects may have made the pile their home (this is less of a problem in an enclosed compost tumbler).  Like any fertilizer, compost can cause “fertilizer burn” on trunks and stems.  Take care to place compost slightly away from the plant itself.

The MPCA has some instructions for Composting in Your Backyard.

You can use this website to Find a Composting Facility if you decide you don't want to do your own composting.

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