Composting 101: The basics

‘Browns’ and ‘greens’
Photo by Susan

Susan Levi-Goerlich, a University of Maryland Extension Master Gardener and a member of the Howard County Master Gardener Compost Education Committee, answers basic questions about composting.

Why compost?

Susan: We’re used to recycling our paper, cans, and bottles. Composing is nature’s way of recycling plant materials.

As plant materials decompose, the nutrients go into the compost and make it a nutrient-rich soil amendment that helps the soil retain moisture, improves the soil structure, and helps feed the soil and the plants growing in it. It’s a good way to reduce your use of chemical fertilizers, so it saves you money and improves the health of your lawn and garden. It can also be good exercise. And it’s environmentally responsible. A huge percentage of the waste in landfills is organic matter that could be composted.

When is a good time to start a compost pile?

Susan: Spring is a great time to start a compost pile. As you clean up the leaves remaining from the fall, they can go into the pile along with your fresh yard clippings.

How do you compost?

Susan: Composting is easy. Layer equal parts of nitrogen-rich materials (called “greens”) and carbon-rich materials (called “browns”). Water the layers and sprinkle a shovelful of finished compost or soil in between the layers. Then mix it all up and let it rot. It will take several months for everything to decompose. The process can be accelerated by maintaining the correct moisture level—about as wet as a wrung-out sponge—and by providing oxygen by turning the pile regularly with a composting fork.

What goes into a compost pile?

Susan: Some sources for greens—the nitrogen-rich materials—are grass clippings, yard clippings, manure from herbivores, coffee grounds, kitchen scraps, and hair. Sources for browns—the carbon-rich materials–are autumn leaves, straw, shredded newspaper, wood chips, pine needles, and even dryer lint.

What should not go into a compost pile?

Susan: Don’t add animal products, such as meat, bones, and dairy products, or fats or oils because they will make the pile smell and can attract pests. Also, don’t add feces from carnivores because they can introduce dangerous bacteria into the pile.

Also, although weeds are plant materials, be cautious about adding them to your compost pile. Avoid weeds that are going to seed, as well as perennial weeds like dandelion and thistle.

Where can I learn how to compost?

Free online brochure

Susan: The University of Maryland Extension’s Home & Garden Information Center has a free six-page brochure, “Backyard Composting,” HG35, which is available online for reading, downloading, or printing. [Use link at end of this posting.]

Howard County Master Gardeners run compost demonstrations at four locations. Locations and schedules are posted online. [Use the link at the end of this posting]. The Master Gardeners distribute free, plastic bins for the county to Howard County residents.

How long does it take for materials to compost?

Susan: If you just assemble a pile and do nothing to it, it can take 6 months to 2 years. This is called “cold” or passive composting. But if you make sure all the materials are shredded and add the right amount of moisture and regularly turn the pile to add oxygen, the pile will heat up and the decomposition will happen much more quickly. “Hot” composting can produce compost in as little as 2 months.

What tools do I need?

Kent P.’s compost turning tools
Photo by Kent P.

Susan: A bin can help keep your pile neat, though you might not consider it a tool. A turning fork is important. It can be a special composting fork or an ordinary garden fork. If you are going to run a hot-compost pile, a thermometer is a good tool to have.

Additional Information: To link to the brochure, “Backyard Composting,” CLICK HERE.

To link to the schedule and locations of composting demonstrations by Howard County Master Gardeners, CLICK HERE.

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