Composting: The ultimate way to recycle


Stop: Don’t toss out those nonmeat kitchen scraps. By following the right techniques and combinations of ingredients, you can have some of the best and least-expensive garden soil amendments.

“The secret to successful gardening is the quality of the soil you plant in, and when you amend your soil with compost, you’re improving your chances for a more productive garden,” says Joe Lamp’l, founder of and the television program “Growing a Greener World” that’s broadcast on PBS stations.

Simply put, compost is made from biodegraded organic matter. Bacteria, fungi, protozoa, earthworms and arthropods (such as beetles and springtails) break down the materials. There are four basic ingredients to make compost: carbon (brown waste), nitrogen (green waste), air and water.

Select an out-of-the-way spot in your yard and place the ingredients into a pile. If you want to contain the pile, build a three-sided wire cage, or tie three wooden pallets together with coat hangers. You can also order closed composting systems online or from garden centers. Your batches will be smaller than using an open bin, but the results will be faster.

“Start with woody materials, branches or sticks that will aid in ventilation, then layer brown, then green materials, using a formula of roughly two-thirds brown and one-third green,” Lamp’l says.

Examples of green materials, which have a higher nitrogen content, include fresh grass clippings, pulled weeds and nonmeat, nonfat kitchen scraps such as vegetable and fruit peelings and cores, coffee grounds and used tea leaves. Brown ingredients, those that furnish carbon that’s important to the decomposition process, include dried leaves, shredded cardboard or paper, small wood chips and dried grass clippings. You can add a shovelful of garden soil or a handful of fertilizer such as 10-10-10 or Milorganite slow-acting fertilizer to speed up the process a bit.

“Several other things that come into play when making compost include moisture, regular aeration and making sure the ingredients you add are not too big,” Lamp’l says. “As the pile decomposes, it creates heat that further breaks down the ingredients.”

A garden thermometer is a good investment for helping you maintain the temperature at around 130 degrees. And some gardeners periodically cover the pile for a couple of weeks with black plastic garbage bags that will hold in heat. Remove the bags long enough to aerate weekly. Also, periodically spray the pile with a garden hose to keep it moist, but do not overwater. The moisture consistency of a damp sponge is a good gauge.

Composting can take two months to a year or more, depending on the ratio of brown to green ingredients, how often the pile is turned or aerated, how much heat is generated during the process, the size of the pile and other conditions. Adding compost to your garden will increase the level of nutrients and improve the texture of the soil.

“Once you’re started composting, using it in your garden and as topdressing for your landscape, you’ll never go back,” he says. “It’s one of the best ways to truly recycle and save money at the same time. And your gardening successes will improve.”

photo by Jordan Crossingham Brannock

 Composting Tips
  • Use kitchen scraps such as fruit or vegetable peelings, salad trimmings and coffee grounds.
  • Use care with adding grass clippings; they can be “too much of a good thing” if added in bulk.
  • Poultry manure or bagged manure are excellent additions.
  • Keep ingredients as small as possible.
  • Paper products like toilet paper rolls, shredded newspapers or noncolored junk mail are a good source of brown ingredients.
  • Turn the pile thoroughly and regularly.
  • Don’t add meat, dairy or grease; they attract vermin and pests.
  • Don’t add weeds producing seeds.
  • Don’t add diseased plants.
  • Don’t add animal waste from carnivores.

Courtesy of The Tennessee Magazine