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Composting 101

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Composting is more important than ever as many of us are starting with gardens in suburban neighborhoods where the fertile topsoil has been lost to construction or chemical pollution. If you’re lucky enough to have a garden outside of suburbia, composting will still increase your yields and the quality of the food you grow.

It use to be that compost was collected in heaps – big piles of smoldering organic matter in an unused corner of a barn lot or field. Composting has evolved along with the urban garden movement so now anyone, even apartment dwellers, can compost.

Composting requires four ingredients: Carbon, nitrogen, water and air. When the ingredients are balanced in a compost bucket or heap, internal temperatures can reach up to 140 degrees and create compost very quickly. Unbalanced mixtures will still heat up, but you’ll wait longer for useable compost. If your pile is outside your compost heap will attract worms and they’ll break down your mixture faster.

But first, learn what you can and can’t compost. Think of your compost as a sort of pet and be sure to only “feed” it the right things:

Add:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Coffee and tea grounds
  • Coffee and tea filters and bags
  • Egg shells
  • Grass clippings
  • Shredded paper and cardboard
  • Dead leaves, old mulch and old topsoil
  • Cow and horse manure
  • Hay and straw
  • Pet fur
  • Nut shells
  • Houseplants
  • Sawdust
  • Wool and wool rags

Don’t Add:

  • Pet waste and cat litter
  • Meat and bones
  • Dairy products
  • Fats, oils, grease, lard
  • Coal, charcoal
  • Anything treated with pesticides

Next, choose a composting receptacle. Composting receptacles come in all sizes – some even sit on the kitchen counter.

Apartment and high-rise dwellers will like the All Seasons Indoor Composter because it’s small and can stay inside. Because of its special fermentation process, there’s no odor. This 5-gallon bucket will make great compost for houseplants and indoor or patio herb gardens.

Suburban backyard dwellers will like the cedar Plow & Hearth bin or can construct their own from simple materials. Some instructions here from the University of Minnesota Extension.

Got a lot of land? Do it the old-fashioned way and make a compost heap:

  • Pick a dry, cool spot
  • Add materials in layers
  • Water materials whenever you add to the heap and “fluff” it with a spade or pitch fork
  • When adding fruit and vegetable scraps, bury them 10” below the surface
  • Cover with a tarp to keep moisture in
  • When the compost at the bottom is dark and rich, it’s ready to use (2 months to 2 years).

If you’ve got a backyard garden or a patio herb garden, composting is simple, inexpensive and returns big rewards for just a little recycling effort.

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