Backyard Composting Do’s and Don’ts
Summer is the season of fresh produce and vibrant gardens, which means it’s also the season of abundant kitchen and yard waste — and the perfect time to think about composting. And not simply as a trendy alternative to the trash can.
Often described as “nature’s way of recycling,” composting is the process of breaking down organic waste such as grass clippings, food scraps, coffee grounds, etc., into a rich soil supplement that can be used as a natural fertilizer. “The benefits of composting span from reducing landfill waste to even helping to prevent or suppress plant diseases in the garden,” says Rick Carr, compost production specialist at Rodale Institute, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit dedicated to pioneering organic farming. “Plus, if your city has a pay-per-pound waste program, composting can save you money by reducing your garbage load.”
While it’s easy to throw everything in a bin or pile and hope for the best, Carr has a few do’s and don’ts every backyard composter should consider.
Do: Find a bin that fits your needs. “The most common — and cost-efficient — composting system out there is a simple pile,” Carr says. “However, a bin, whether built or purchased, allows you to manipulate your compost, helping to boost decomposition.” Carr also lists your budget, the volume and types of materials you plan to compost, and your setting as considerations for your compost bin. “You don’t want to upset your neighbors with an eyesore,” he advises.
Don’t: Make it inconvenient. Carr reminds us that, like any household chore, the more convenient your compost is, the more successful you’ll be at using it. He recommends setting up your compost in a spot that’s easily accessible — even in harsh weather. For the ultimate in composting convenience, we like this indoor compost bin, which lets you neatly keep food waste indoors until you’re ready to make a trip outside.
Carr also advocates for placing your compost close to a water source so you can easily add water if needed. “You don’t want your compost to dry out,” he says. “But it’s better to err on the side of being too dry than too wet — excess moisture can cause unpleasant odors.”
Do: Use “lasagna layering” when constructing your pile. Carr instructs: “First, lay down a 6-to-8-inch layer of dry sticks and stalks (a wooden pallet works, too) to help keep the composting layer off the ground and allow for drainage and convection. Then, add an equally deep layer of ‘brown’ material such as straw, leaves, paper, or woodchips. Make a nest out of this material, leaving the middle open for your nitrogen-rich ‘green’ material (e.g., fresh, wet food waste). Then, dump your green material into the middle of the nest, and cover it with brown material. Repeat this process as your build up your compost. The two types of materials will balance each other out, allowing for optimum decomposition.”
Don’t: Leave food showing. Carr adds that the lasagna method is great for avoiding a cardinal sin of composting: visible food waste. “It attracts pests, insects, and unwanted smells — as well as the scorn of your neighbors,” Carr explains. “By keeping your food waste covered by brown material, your compost pile will appear as a benign pile of leaves.”
Do: Keep it diverse. Or, as Carr likes to say, “Diversity reigns and uniformity pains.”
“Having a good mix of ingredients in your compost helps to improve its chemical and biological properties,” he explains. “Things that should never be included in your mix include glass, metal, plastic and styrofoam.” He also cautions novices against attempting to compost dairy and meat products. “Doing so could attract houseflies, maggots, and other pests, not to mention odors,” he says. As for adding worms to boost decomposition? Carr says it’s not necessary — they’ll find their way in on their own.
Don’t: Think there’s only one right way to compost. “Everyone’s using a different bin and different materials, so everyone’s compost is totally unique,” Carr says. Not sure if your method of composting is working for you? The Rodale Institute offers a range of composting resources, including this informative webinar.