Composting is the process of breaking down organic matter into nutrient-dense humus that can in turn be used to build rich, dark soil amendment. When added to the garden, compost can bring with it amazing results that some companies would have you believe could only be had by using their (often chemical-laden) products.
The composting methods that we employ coincide with our effort to keep as much organic matter on our property as we can. Trees, for example, can be broken down into firewood, leaves and mulch. The firewood becomes ash, the leaves become leaf mold and the wood chip mulch lines walkways and garden beds while it slowly breaks down and further builds the soil. All parts of the tree remain here and eventually break down and become part of the earth again.
In addition to trees, all other plant material on the property can be composted. Here we sort the material based on its size and density to help gauge the time it will take to break down. Small limbs and shrubs go into one pile while leaves, grass clippings and household kitchen scraps go into another.
What household materials can be composted?
The subject of what specific items from the house can be composted is up for discussion, debate and even an argument or two. It is generally accepted that the skins, peels and leftovers of any vegetable or fruit can be included, as can your morning coffee grounds. From inside the house we compost:
Non-meat food scraps
Coffee and tea grounds
Shredded newspaper & office paper (black & white, non-glossy only)
House plant clippings
You could also compost both human and pet hair if you were so inclined, but human hair has been said to deter garden pests when spread around areas that are prone to such problems so that is where you’ll find any hair clippings around our house. Urine is also said to be an effective deterrent for deer, so we do occasionally mark our territory as it were and yet the nitrogen in male urine is beneficial to compost as well. Go figure.
Additionally, animal manure can be composted including horse, cow, goat, rabbit and chicken manure.
How do I know if I am doing it right?
The short answer is that if you are composting at all then you are doing it right. The good news is that it is really hard to completely screw up compost so chances are pretty good that you will be able to do it with a minimum of headaches. That said there are some problems that you may encounter that might be solved (or avoided altogether).
The biggest problem I have encountered over the years is that when a compost bin is too high in nitrogen it will begin to smell of ammonia. This will happen fairly often when you introduce large amounts of animal waste at one time. If that happens, there are two things you should do to balance the compost.
First, make sure that your pile is stirred regularly. A compost tumbler like mine (pictured below) makes easy work of stirring things up. Adequate airflow is crucial to breaking down of the matter contained in the bin. Second, counteract the high nitrogen by adding carbon-rich material daily until the ammonia odor is gone.
Another rookie composting mistake has to do with moisture. Your compost pile should be moist – not too wet and not too dry. In my experience it is rare that I have ever had to add moisture to a compost pile. If your pile is excessively wet due to weather, it is a good idea to turn it with a pitchfork every day to aerate and speed up the evaporation process. If you do find that your compost pile is dry, give it a good turn to see if the center is still moist an if not, give it a quick drink.