Composting Quick-Start Guide

compostshutterstock_128823118By Gray Russell, Sustainability Officer, Township of Montclair, Dept. of Health and Human Services

The fall season is the perfect time to begin composting.Read below for more information on the process and benefits of composting.

What is compost?

Composting is nature’s recycling. Compost is created when organic materials from our homes and gardens such as leaves, grass clippings, garden trimmings, yard prunings, and some kitchen scraps are decomposed by microorganisms and transformed into humus and mulch, which are valuable soil improvers. While decomposition occurs naturally, the process can be sped up and improved for gardening by some simple composting techniques.


Compost happens naturally, but the right bin helps.

Most compost bins are simple holding units which contain the organic materials and can be built in varying sizes of wood, wood and wire, recycled plastic, chicken-wire mesh, snow fencing, or concrete block. Used shipping pallets or an old fence can make a perfectly suitable bin. Another style is a barrel composter, which tumbles the materials rather than requiring forking or turning by hand. Composting larger volumes can be accomplished by using a series of three bins, which allows accumulating materials to be stored and turned on a regular schedule, creating a better product faster.


What is compostable?

Virtually anything that has grown in your garden or yard is appropriate, especially leaves and grass. Leave out diseased materials and invasive weeds. Twigs are fine, branches should be chipped. Kitchen scraps such as fruit and vegetable peels, spoiled produce, and coffee grinds (No meat, bones, fat, or dairy) can be added to the center of your compost pile where they will supply valuable nutrients. All organic materials contain nitrogen and carbon, two elements essential to successful composting. Most things that are still fresh and moist are higher in nitrogen; if they are dried they are higher in carbon . Greens break down quickly; browns take longer.


What should I do?

Alternate layers of “greens” such as fresh grass clippings, weeds, trimmings, and kitchen scraps, with layers of “browns” such as fallen leaves, straw, hay, wood chips, or dried prunings. This creates a nutrient-rich food source for bacteria, fungi, protozoans, and invertebrates such as mites, millipedes, insects, sowbugs, and worms. These healthy organisms working together cause the natural decomposition process.


How long will it take to compost?

The length of time the composting process takes depends on a number of factors: the amounts of “greens” and “browns”, moisture, aeration, the amount of exposed surface area, weather, and the temperatures reached during composting. Turning the pile periodically will add air for the micro-organisms and speed up the process. The microbial activity creates heat, a sign of good compost “cooking”.


Water and air

If the pile seems dry, add water: the composts should have the consistency of a wrung-out sponge. The more a material is chopped or shredded, the more of its surface area is exposed, and the faster it will compost. If the pile is not heating up or breaking down, add “greens” like grass clippings or kitchen scraps for faster decomposition. If the pile is too moist or has an ammonia odor, add “browns” such as leaves, and turn the pile. An active composter can achieve “Black Gold” in less than 6 weeks, a more passive method will produce material in 6 months to a year. The key is that once you have started harvesting your compost you have a constant supply of free, nutrient-rich soil improver. 


How to use compost?

Composting produces two very valuable materials: humus, which is used as a wonderful soil amendment, and mulch, which is a top dressing. Humus can be added to soils to improve structure, the “tilth” and to increase the availability of nutrients and the water-holding capability. Mulch can be used as a side-dressing for plants and prevents compaction and erosion, reduces weeds, retains moisture, and insulates soil during extreme temperatures.


Why should I compost?

Composting is simple and easy, it’s good for your garden and good for the earth, it saves you money, and it’s fun! Composting is the natural way to recycle unusable plant material into a valuable resource. Rather than pay to bag, collect, transport, and dispose of yard and garden materials into a landfill, why not recycle them and use them for free? As an environmentally sustainable and scientifically sound method of soil regeneration, composting provides a healthy, nutrient-rich soil improvement. Like gardening, composting gives both novice and the expert a sense of accomplishment, and a glimpse of the world’s natural beauty and its ecosystem right in our own backyards.



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