Backyard Composting

Posted in Composting

Why Compost?

Compost, which is the crumbly decomposed form of organic matter, is a reliable means for supporting plant growth and building soil.  Among other effects, compost can produce larger crops, prevent pests and disease, reduce the need for chemical fertilizer, remove chemicals from stormwater runoff, and recycle nutrients back into the soil.  Composting can save money by reducing trash that is bagged and taken to transfer stations, as well as saving on water bills by helping soil retain its moisture.   

How Do I Compost?

You will need a compost bin to contain your materials and promote an adequate environment for decomposition.  If you do not have a manufactured compost bin, there are several do-it-yourself alternatives that can be found online. Be sure to store your bin in a partly sunny location.  For convenience, the location should also be near a water source and a lawn or garden that will accept the compost.  A successful compost pile needs the following: air, moisture, heat, and a proper balance of nutrients.  A safe ratio for nutrients is one green (nitrogen) for every brown (carbon).

When adding material, chop up the larger pieces, and cover food waste and grass clippings with leaves or straw to reduce odors.  After 7-10 days, turn the pile with a shovel or pitchfork.  Add water if needed, as the pile should be as moist as a wrung out sponge.  The pile will begin to decompose within 10 to 14 days.

There are two types of composting.  Active composting, which takes 3-6 months, involves continuing to turn the pile every 7 days and adding water if necessary.  Passive composting, which takes at least 6 months, involves letting the material decompose naturally.  Regardless of the process, final products should be dark, crumbly, and earthy.

Do Compost:  Grass clippings, leaves, flowers, old plants, old potting soil, twigs, annual weeds, fruit and vegetable scraps, bread and grains, coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, and manure (horse, cow, chicken, and rabbit)

Don’t Compost:  Manure (dogs and cats), diseased plants, weeds with seeds, invasive weeds (quack grass, morning glory, buttercup), meat or fish parts, bones, dairy products, butter and other fats, cooking oil, oily or greasy foods

The key to healthy compost is a mix of “brown” material and “green” material.  Brown material is high in carbon and decomposes very slowly, with certain woody materials taking multiple years to fully decompose.  Browns help keep compost aerated to reduce odors.  Green material, on the other hand, is high in nitrogen and decay rapidly to accelerate the process as a whole. 

Problems and Troubleshooting

Why does my compost have a smelly odor?

A foul odor is usually caused by exposed food scraps.  It may also be that there is not enough air or brown material in the pile.  Turning the pile and/or adding more brown material should reduce the odor.

Why are pests in my compost?

Pests in a compost pile tend to come from exposed food scraps.  Remember to cover all food scraps with brown material to properly aerate the compost.

Is my compost too dry?

While the most obvious solution is to add water to the pile while turning it, a lack of green material may also be the cause.  Be sure to keep a balanced ratio of browns and greens and chop or shred any larger pieces of brown material.

Is my compost too wet?

Try turning the pile in order to give it more air or add more brown material.

Is my pile decomposing?

While it can be hard to notice if decomposition is occurring, the temperature of the pile is the best way to tell.  Under ideal conditions compost will be hot to the touch.

Why isn’t my pile heating up?

There are several solutions to this problem.  The pile may be too small, meaning more material may need to be added.  The pile may not be getting enough air or moisture, so try turning the pile, adding water if needed.  Mixing in some green material may help too.   

 The IRC has rain barrels and compost bins available for purchase at our office in city hall, the Buckhorn facility, and the Duncansville facility.  


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