Landfills are one of the biggest producers of greenhouse gases, but the big tragedy is that, according to the EPA, at least 23 percent of the U.S. Solid Waste stream is made up of perfectly compostable materials!

Compost is a natural process of decomposition that creates active organic matter, or nutrient dense humus, out of  materials like yard and food waste. Not only is compost an awesome and totally free fertilizer that nourishes plants and enriches soil, but it reduces the amount of waste going to landfills, including the transportation needed to get it there, and is a fascinating process as well! Here are the basics to get started with your own simple compost:

1. Select a container

A healthy compost pile can literally be just that — a pile. However, a compost pile can get a bit messy and look unsightly, so you might opt for some sort of container. It can be as simple as a wooden frame or wire cage, or as fancy as one of the many bins and drum barrels on the market. The key things to keep in mind when planning for your compost container is the size (you want it to be big enough to handle the amount of material you expect to produce, but not too big to get the decomposing process underway), sun (heat is an essential component to a rich humus turnout, so be sure to locate your compost where it can cook a little), and access (make sure you can get into the container easily). If you are handy, try building your own compost bin, and if you are super resourceful, try making one out of recycled materials, like old waste bins or wooden pallets! Apartment dwellers, don’t be discouraged! Composting doesn’t require much space or effort, and can easily be done indoors!

2. Know the compost recipe

There are far too many organisms, fungus, and bacteria involved in the process of composting to list, but the essential recipe to feed them is an equal blend of Nitrogen (think wet – green leaves, grass clippings, weeds, fruit and vegetable peels, coffee grounds, tea leaves), Carbon (think dry –  leaves, twigs, shredded paper or cardboard, sawdust), Water, and Air. Avoid all animal products, including dairy and eggs, pet waste, or cooked items such as bread, leftover pasta, chips, candy or sugary foods, or leftover vegetables that have been made with oils or other fats that will quickly go rancid. A general rule of thumb is to use food scraps as close to their natural state as possible.  Also, make sure that any yard scraps added to the compost have not gone to seed, because those seeds will soon turn to happy, healthy new seedlings in the compost. An equal blending of these four components will attract the necessary organisms to break down the mixture before it rots.

3. Give it some attention

Once you’ve got your mixture going, you can pretty much sit back and let the organisms do the work. However, you’ll want to give your batch a good turn every so often, depending on the size and input of ingredients. A good schedule is to bury new scrap additions to the pile, thereby turning up and aerating the mixture, and preventing pests from snacking on your fresh leftovers. Also, keep an eye on the moisture levels. In addition to air, the organisms at work need water, so if your compost seems dry, give it a soak every now and again.  Your compost is ready to use when it is a dark, brown, crumbly matter that has a pleasant earthy smell, and is warm to the touch. Yes, warm! A healthy, rich bacterial environment will actually create steaming compost! You may need to sift out larger chunks to finish breaking down, but the rest of the dark, warm humus can be mixed directly to garden beds.

4. Watch out for problems

Stinky, soggy compost, or compost that attracts rodents or bugs may be getting too much water, or it might contain non-compostable, rancid materials like meat or fatty, starchy foods.  Dry compost that doesn’t activate or smell fragrantly earthy, may need more nitrogen rich materials, or more water. Sometimes, a starter bag of compost from your local nursery can get the process started if you can’t seem to get the balance right with your own scraps.

Good luck with your compost!

Image source: normanack / Wikimedia Commons