By Kelsey Hansen, Group Tours and Education Coordinator
Happy 'Learn About Composting' Day!
I am sure a lot of us have heard about composting and its benefits to fertilizing your gardens and reducing food waste. But what is actually happening in your compost bin? Composting is a way to break down a lot of organic material – newspaper, leaves and grass, fruits and vegetables, and woody materials - that you were ready to throw out to the landfill. Instead of transporting your yard and food waste to the landfill, why not create a compost bin to reduce all that waste from pilling up.
Within your bin, microorganisms from the soil are breaking down the organic materials into their simplest parts. Bacteria and fungi produce fiber-rich, carbon-containing humus that can be applied back into your soil. Humus, which is completely decomposed organic matter, can bring nutrients back to the soil, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.
The organic material is broken down through a process known as aerobic respiration. This is when the bacteria and fungi use oxygen to turn fuel materials into chemical energy. By mixing the compost, or rotating it, you are introducing more oxygen into the mix. Watering the pile is also necessary for the decomposition process. As the microorganisms break down the materials, they are using so much energy that they are heating up the pile. The carbon dioxide and heat from the organisms can raise the temperatures in the bin or pile to 100-150 degrees Fahrenheit. Depending on how well you manage your pile, your materials can be turned to compost within a matter of weeks.
Instead of just tossing all your waste and materials into a bin and thinking you are done, it is important to understand that composting requires a balance of resources. The bin or pile will need plenty of air, so you will need to turn it or mix it every one to two days. As mentioned, you will need to water the pile; it will need to be moist, not soaking. One of the most important parts to creating your compost pile is the carbon (brown materials) to nitrogen (green materials) ratio; this ratio should be about 30-parts carbon to 1-part nitrogen. Carbon material can be fallen leaves, twigs, or newspaper and cardboard scraps, and nitrogen material can be eggshells, tea bags, coffee grounds, and farm animal manure. Throwing in some soil will add to the microorganisms living in the compost pile, and when you do throw your materials into the pile, make sure bigger pieces are broken down, that way it will be easier for the materials to break down.
It is important to know what cannot be composted. Some materials can add unwanted pesticides and herbicides into your compost pile; these materials also have the possibility of harming your own health if your compost is used on fruits and vegetables. Other products, such as meat, cheese, and milk can attract unwanted pests to your pile. When you are preparing to add ingredients to your pile, check this link to see what is ok to add and what is not.
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Compost structures range from simple piles to elaborate 3-bin systems. It is all a matter of how active you would like to be with your compost pile. If you are planning on just having a pile and letting nature do its thing, this is called passive composting. It is less efficient and takes longer for the materials to breakdown to be used in your garden or on your lawn. Active composting is when you manage the compost daily and can speed up the decomposition. This process can be achieved with a simple garbage can structure or a tumbler, which you can purchase or build yourself.
Composting can be a lot of fun and you can see your results in your own garden. It is not only beneficial to your backyard, but it can help reduce waste and can be healthy for the surrounding environment. Composting can attract pollinators and other critters that will keep unwanted pests out of your gardens or lawns. It is also a great way to get outside and form a new hobby. Happy composting!