Photo by Kenneth Ray Seals
A beneficial addition to any garden is compost. Compost is organic matter that has been decomposed and recycled for use as fertilizer and soil amendment. The process of composting requires combining wetted organic matter, such as leaves and food waste, and waiting for the materials to break down into humus. Decomposition is aided by shredding the plant matter, adding water and ensuring proper aeration by regularly turning the mixture. Worms and fungi further break up the material. Bacteria that require oxygen to function (aerobic bacteria) and fungi manage the chemical process by converting the inputs into heat, carbon dioxide and ammonium.
Many common household waste items can be composted. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 20 to 30 percent of what we throw away is compromised of food scraps and yard waste that can be composted. In order to successfully compost, three basic components are required: nitrogen, carbon, and water. Nitrogen comes in the form of “green” products such as lawn clippings, vegetable scraps, and manure from herbivorous animals. Carbon comes in the form of “brown” products such as dry leaves, cardboard, and chipped wood. Water provides moisture to help break down the organic matter.
Carbon and nitrogen inputs should be equal; that is, you should have the same amount of green materials as brown materials in your compost pile. Ideally, nitrogen and carbon should be layered in your composting pile and the layers should consist of different sized particles. The compost pile should be located in a dry, shaded spot. To successfully compost, water must be added to moisten the pile. The amount of water added depends on the compost pile’s makeup. Compost piles should be turned at the proper intervals. New material should not be added to actively composting piles as the process must restart at the beginning. Start a new compost pile for new material, while the first compost pile finishes the composting process.
The finished product, compost, can improve soil structure and texture and increase the soil’s ability to hold water and air. It also stimulates healthy root development in plants and encourages the production of beneficial organisms. Compost improves overall soil fertility. Backyard composting is simple to start and fairly easy to maintain. You can save money by reducing the need for added fertilizers and nutrients to your garden or landscape.
Kitchen scraps and yard waste are not the only items that can be composted. Horse manure can be easily composted, if done correctly. Please visit Horse Manure Management to learn about composting horse (and other barnyard animal) manure.
- US Environmental Protection Agency Composting at Home
- El Corazon Compost Facility (AgriService)
- Solana Center
- University of California Cooperative Extension Composting Video Series
- University of California Cooperative Extension Composting 101
- United States Composting Council
- What and What Not to Compost
- Composting: Waste to Resources
- Impact of Compost Application on Soil Erosion and Water Quality
- Best Management Practices for Incorporating Food Residuals into Backyard Composting Operations
- Backyard Composting Guide
- Composting At Home
- Preventing Animal Nuisances in Small Scale Composting
- A Guide to Small Scale Food and Yard Waste Composting