Home & Garden

Enrich your plants: Compost at home

Composting containers come in a variety of shapes and sizes. You can buy a fancy composter or make one yourself.
Composting containers come in a variety of shapes and sizes. You can buy a fancy composter or make one yourself. MCT

If you're still bagging grass clippings and fallen leaves to be hauled off to the landfill, make this summer the season you declare your independence from the 30-gallon plastic bag.

Composting can eliminate your dependence on chemical fertilizers, improve the quality of your soil, reduce the burden on your community's landfill and lessen your need for soil amendments and those evil black plastic bags. Mixing finished compost into sandy soil helps it to absorb and retain water, while mixing finished compost into clay soil loosens it up and allows in more air.

"The U.S. creates 50 percent of the world's garbage, and more than 65 percent of what we dispose of is organic," according to Southlake, Texas, master composter Charlie Shiner.

Don't know how to get started?

Here's a primer to help you join the now-sizeable segment of homeowners who are hot to rot.

The 'recipe'

Cakes can be concocted with all kinds of complicated ingredient lists, but every cook knows that the basic four are all you really need: sugar, butter, flour and eggs.

So it is with turning yard waste into delectable dirt for your garden. Your composting basic four: greens, browns, water and air.

Greens: These are organic materials that are high in nitrogen. The weeds you pulled up from your flower bed, the tomato plants that succumbed to the heat, the grass clippings, if you're not comfortable leaving them on the lawn. (Although leaving your grass clippings on the lawn is an elemental form of "composting." The clippings decompose and add organic matter back to the soil.)

Browns: Browns are high in carbon. Leaves in fall, dead branches cut in small pieces — carbon sources are abundant, and the optimal carbon/nitrogen ratio is about 30-to-1, according to Shiner, although there's no need to get out a calculator.

Water: This is necessary for the microorganisms that do the decomposition work. For optimal decomposition, your compost pile should have the moisture feel of a wrung-out sponge, Shiner says. Too little water, and decomposition slows way down; too much water, and you create an environment in which anaerobic bacteria (which don't use oxygen) take over. Anaerobes can produce ammonia and sulfur compounds, making for smelly compost. Which brings us to our fourth ingredient:

Air: This is needed to keep those good, aerobic bacteria productive, and the way to incorporate air in your compost is to turn or move it. Turning every three to five days is optimal and will get you usable dirt in the shortest time. It doesn't really hurt the ultimate decomposition if you don't aerate your pile that often; it just slows things down.

'Cooking' your compost

It is, perhaps, overdoing the recipe analogy to say that your compost "cooks," but actively metabolizing bacteria give off heat, causing your compost pile to heat up.

Shiner has recorded the temperatures of his compost pile since he began composting, much in the way some gardeners record planting dates, rain and harvest dates.

On his first day of composting, Shiner's compost went from 65 degrees to 135 degrees, a sign that good things were happening to his heap. The second day, the temperature was up to 140 degrees. On the third day, the temperature had dropped some, so he turned it, giving it a shot of air and eventually getting things "cooking" again.

Compost that is watered and aerated frequently can be ready to use as flower-bed mulch in as little as three weeks, although it won't be close to being fully decomposed at that point.

Lorrie Anderle, recycling coordinator for the city of Arlington, Texas, says would-be composters don't need to take such an active approach to composting. "Cold composting" involves little more than heaping your yard scraps in an out-of-the way pile, letting the sprinkler or the skies water it, and turning the compost heap every month or so. It could take a year or more to get usable dirt with this passive method, but it eventually will decompose to a nice, rich, organic humus to work into your garden soil or to sprinkle on your lawn to improve the "tilth," or crumbliness, of your soil.

Other 'ingredients'

Yard scraps probably will make up the bulk of your compost, but many people incorporate other organic waste items. So many items can be composted that it's easier to say what shouldn't go into your compost pile than what should, so here's a list of no-no's.

Do not put in your compost pile:

■ Meat, fat or dairy products. These items create an odor that attracts pests, including raccoons and rats.

■ Noxious weeds and seeds of difficult weeds, such as nut sedge, that you are worried about spreading.

■ Diseased plants.

■ Pet poop.

Kitchen scraps, such as vegetable peelings and overripe fruit, can be added to your compost, and because they are quite wet, they can speed up decomposition. One important caveat: If you add kitchen scraps, be sure to bury them under about 6 inches of yard-waste material to avoid attracting pests, Anderle says.

Other possible mix-ins include sawdust and coffee grounds (a good source of nitrogen, according to The Complete Compost Gardening Guide by Barbara Pleasant). Almost anything that is made from plant materials and can be torn or cut into small bits will work, and that includes phone books.

Bin there

Where to park your compost pile is probably your next question. If you live on acreage or can screen off a far corner of your yard with bushes, you might choose to build a compost pile on the ground, but most urban and suburban dwellers want to keep their compost in bins.

Bins range in price from homemade (often the most eco-friendly option) to about $300. In Lexington, the Urban County Government makes compost bins available, but there's a wait list for them. To get on the list, call LexCall at 311 or (859) 425-2255.