Updated: Feb 26
Get the dirt on composting: the benefits, what to include (and what not to), and finding the right balance. By Janet Loughrey
Photo by: Elena Elisseeva / Shutterstock.
A solid foundation is key to the success of any endeavour, and gardening is no exception. Like humans, plants need good nutrition to grow, thrive, and be better able to fend off the effects of harmful pests and diseases. Good soil, which provides the foundation for a healthy garden, seldom occurs naturally, but has to be created. One of the best ways to enhance the fertility and consistency of the existing soil is to make your own compost.
Nearly all native soils are deficient in nutrients and tilth (physical condition), with most being too clay, rocky, lean, or sandy, resulting in a less-than-ideal environment for plants to grow. Enhancing the soil with compost and other nutrient-rich substances such as livestock manure or worm castings will improve soil structure, texture, aeration, and its ability to retain water. It also helps with erosion control, pH balance, and healthy root development.
WHAT IS COMPOST?
In its raw form, compost consists of carbon-based brown matter such as dead leaves and small twigs, and nitrogen-based green matter such as grass clippings, fresh plant trimmings, and plant-based kitchen waste. Composting is the process of transforming this raw material through decomposition with the assistance of beneficial insects, earthworms, and microorganisms (bacteria and fungi) into a nutrient-dense, soil-like matter that’s added to existing soil.
With kitchen and food waste comprising up to one-third of all household garbage, composting is a great way to reduce your garbage, as well as your carbon footprint. When organic matter ends up in landfills, it lacks the necessary conditions for optimal decomposition, creating harmful methane gas in the process which contributes to global warming and climate change. Kitchen countertop compost bins make it easy to store your scraps before adding them to your compost bin or pile.
THE PROCESS OF COMPOSTING
Composting can be as simple as allowing a neglected pile of plant debris to break down on its own, which is referred to as passive or cold composting. However, this can take up to a year or more, with inconsistent results.
Active or hot composting speeds up decomposition by introducing oxygen (turning the pile), adding moisture, and providing the proper carbon-to-nitrogen ratio. This allows microorganisms to do their job more efficiently and raises the core temperature to 120-160 degrees F, accelerating the process by “cooking” the pile. By employing these tactics, composting can be accomplished in as little as 1 to 3 months.
Like a good food recipe, it’s important to have the right mix of ingredients. Carbon and nitrogen are the two essential elements for composting, with the proper ratio crucial to efficient decomposition. The microorganisms responsible for breaking down plant matter digest carbon as an energy source, while nitrogen is ingested for protein synthesis.
An efficient compost pile should contain more carbon than nitrogen. Too much carbon can slow down decomposition, while too much nitrogen can result in unpleasant smells. The optimal ratio is around 2 to 3 parts brown matter (carbon) to 1 part green (nitrogen) by volume.
Carbon sources include: dead leaves, woody branches, conifer needles, bark dust, sawdust, brown paper bags, shredded office paper, newspaper, cardboard, coffee filters, straw, and wood ash produced from fireplaces and wood stoves.
Nitrogen sources include: freshly cut grass clippings and other green plant trimmings, fruit and vegetable kitchen scraps, used coffee grounds, eggshells, seaweed, kelp, blood meal, and livestock manures.