Turning your trash into garden treasure

Compost is vitamins for your garden. The nutrient-rich, loamy soil is the best booster for growing healthy crops at home, and nature makes it for free — as long as you know some basics on how to build a perfect pile.

“Organic compost helps improve soil texture and the nutrient composition in soil,” said Elizabeth Roche, extension educator for agriculture and natural resources at Ohio State University Extension Cuyahoga County. “You find a lot of micronutrients in compost that synthetic fertilizers don’t have,” which promotes healthier plant growth. Compost also attracts beneficial insects and worms and minimizes plant diseases. Compost soil feeds gardens, lawns, planter boxes, and flowerbeds, and is a great mulch replacement as a topper around shrubs and other landscaping plants.

Here in Ohio, compost is especially important. Our natural, clay soil acts like a drain plug, but compost adds essential “room” for air, water, and nutrients to feed plant roots and improve fertility. If you want to grow your own groceries, quality soil is the No. 1 factor in your success.

The Dirt on Dirt

The raw materials for compost are at our fingertips — food scraps, newspaper, used coffee grounds, plant clippings. A perfect pile starts with kitchen scraps like rinds and peels, but can include leaves from your spring cleanup and grass clippings from those early season cuts. Worms, insects, fungi, and bacteria nosh on these treats and convert them into nutrient-rich humus. In nature, the process can take months to years, but you can speed it up at home by adjusting a few variables.

The available air, water, and ambient temperature of your compost determines how fast it will break down. If you’re in no rush, you can create a passive compost pile, basically allowing your yard waste (but not food) to decompose at nature’s pace. An active compost pile requires a bit of adjusting:

Microbes that decompose soil need oxygen. Without it, you’ll get a stinky pile. Good, aerated compost should smell musty and loamy, like wet leaves. To obtain ideal air circulation, be sure that heavier ingredients like grass clippings are on the bottom of the pile. Then build your pile with layers of textured materials — leaves, grass, and straw. If you’re composting kitchen waste, add in twigs or other dry material including scrunched up paper or cardboard pieces (which decompose). Periodically turn the pile using a garden fork (or a smaller fork if you’re working with a bucket system — more on this later).

Proper moisture is a balance: Dry compost is relatively inactive, but too much water stops necessary air circulation. The ideal moisture level is akin to a wrung-out sponge. Your compost should be coated, but not drenched, in water. If it’s too dry, carefully wet material as you add it. If it’s too wet, add dry leaves or straw. If you add heavy, wet grass clippings, allow them to dry out first in a separate pile before adding them into the mix.

The prime temperature for aerobic decomposition is between 104 and 150 degrees Fahrenheit — it’s a good idea to purchase a compost thermometer at a garden store so you can keep an eye on your pile. Be sure to keep the temperature under 160 degrees. The pile’s size can impact its temperature. A larger outdoor pile, about 3 feet high and wide, will insulate the middle of the pile and create thermal energy. If you use a bin, you’ll be able to better control the temperature. (We recommend using a bin if you’ll be composting kitchen waste to keep animals out.)

What to Compost

First, make your composting a habit by keeping a convenient pail or bin under the sink to collect scraps to transport to your bin or pile. Be sure to keep it clean and sealed with a lid.

  • Peels and rinds from veggies and fruit
  • Paper, paper towels and newspaper
  • Tea leaves
  • Coffee grounds
  • Egg shells (crushed)
  • Leaves (not evergreen / pine)
  • Tree branches / clippings
  • Straw or hay
  • Sawdust
  • Vacuum dust
  • Wood ash (not coal ash)
  • Grass clippings

IMPORTANT: Do not add meat products, cheese, fish, cooked food, weed seeds, diseased plant materials, disposable diapers, glossy newsprint, or coal ash to your pile.

A Better Bin

Garden centers offer a range of bins, including kits that even provide worms. Smaller bins can resemble a square trashcan and are easily concealed. Spinning composters look like a large ball that you can rotate to blend and aerate your mix. There are indoor Bokashi microbe composters that stealthily fit in with your kitchen (and compost quickly — about two weeks promising no smell). If you’re more adventurous, you can try a vermi, or worm composter. Of course, you can always build your own compost bin. There are loads of ideas on Pinterest, some using pallets and others as simple as retiring a roughneck plastic bin to the outdoors for this work.

More adventurous soil-makers might want to start a pile out back, with the yard as a canvas. Here’s how to begin:

  • Locate an out-of-the-way area, like a corner, as long as it receives partial sunlight.
  • Fabricate a bin out of rot-resistant wood or wire fencing. Layer the compost pile, beginning with fallen tree leaves, spent plants, plant cuttings, grass, thatch, coffee grounds, and fruit and vegetable scraps.
  • Make the pile as big as you want. A typical pile is about five-by-five-by-five feet. Stir the pile a few times a month to hasten decomposition and to keep it moist.
  • Your first pile will be shovel-ready after about two months: a milestone in the homeowner’s small but mighty efforts to promote a zero-waste society.

Kathy Carr contributed to this story.

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