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Composting Tips & Tricks

Now that we’ve taken the time to become properly acquainted with the ideas behind composting, and had a look at some of the implements that can help you make the stuff, it’s time to get our fingernails dirty, get down to the nitty-gritty, and get composting. Here are some best practices and troubleshooting tips.

Like we said before, all biodegradable material will eventually compost, given enough time, but there are definitely some ways to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of this process. First of all, keep a close eye on things that you’re throwing away; almost all of your organic waste — fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, tea leaves and tea bags, old bread, even crushed eggshells — can be composted, and it’ll add up amazingly fast! We don’t recommend meat (or bones), dairy products or fats in general (it tends to be extra stinky, and can attract unwanted critters), so peanut butter, olive oil and the like still have to go in the trash.

Once you’ve nailed down what gets composted and what gets trashed (and you’ve picked either a bin, pile, or other method to compost), perhaps the most important thing to remember is to keep it aerated. The bins we mentioned yesterday make this easy, since you just have to turn a crank or roll it over, rather than doing it by hand, but this can be accomplished in a pile with some diligent hand-turning with a pitchfork, rake or shovel. When building a pile, bigger tends to be better, since heat builds up more easily with more volume, but piles bigger than about 3 feet square can get a little unwieldy.

Maintaining a proper moisture level is important, too (and, again, why we recommend that first-timers use a container, since it helps retain moisture). Allowing compost to get too dry slows down or stops the decomposition process, but getting it too wet makes it stink, so it’s important to keep it damp, but not dripping wet.

Balancing materials is important, too; as with above, going too far to one side or the other throws the system out of whack and slows down the process. Remember, two out of the four necessary ingredients for composting (aside from air and moisture) are carbon and nitrogen, so mixing them in the right ratio will keep the compost humming along. Carbon-rich materials, often referred to as “browns,” are usually brown and dry (having released most of their nitrogen), and include dead leaves, straw, wood chips, corn stalks, shredded newspaper and cardboard are all examples. On the other side of the equation, nitrogen-rich materials are often referred to as “greens,” mostly because that’s usually the color they often are; greens include grass clippings, fresh leaves and twigs, vegetable and fruit trimmings, coffee grounds and filters and anything that still has moisture or “life” left in it. The mixture doesn’t have to be exact, but it’s a good idea to shoot for between 25 to 30 times as much carbon as nitrogen.

Okay, so you once you’ve started, there are a few common problems that we can help troubleshoot. If there’s a distinctly bad odor coming from your pile, it’s often due to too many greens, so add some carbon-rich materials to get the balance back. If your pile smells more like rotten eggs than anything, it’s quite possible that your compost isn’t getting enough air, so turn and aerate the pile with diligence until the odor goes away. If everything smells okay, but the pile isn’t composting, it’s probably too dry; dampen (don’t drown) the pile with some water and it should start things back up. Keep exposed food to a minimum (by covering it with some soil or lots of browns) to keep flies away, and be sure to keep fats, animal products or dairy products out of the pile to keep raccoons and other critters away.

Following these tips (and staying away from the trouble above) will net you some delicious compost in about two or three months. To speed up the composting process, add new materials in tiny pieces and add air to your pile regularly, by turning it and giving it a good poke with a broom handle. The compost is “done” is ready when it no longer has traces of greens or browns, and is dark brown with an earthy smell. You may find that only the bottom of your pile is ready to use while the top is still decomposing. Before you use your compost, it’s not a bad idea give it a quick pass through some wire mesh and return any non-composted items to your bin. Good luck!