By Elizabeth Smith

Composting is the process of creating fertilizer from plants. Nature’s growing cycle starts with the birth of new seedlings, followed by vigorous growth, then seed and fruit development, harvesting, leaf loss in the fall (for deciduous trees, shrubs and plants) and eventually ends with die off. In nature, dead leaves and plants fall off the plant or tree, creating a layer of mulch on top of the ground, which over time breaks down and turns back into soil, feeding new plants. No one goes around raking up those layers of mulch and compost out in nature because plants need that compost fertilizer available to them automatically. Have you ever looked under a mesquite tree out in the desert? It will likely have a thick layer of mulch underneath it made up of years of its own dead leaf matter falling off and enriching the soil around the root zone, right where it is needed.

In the home garden, we may not wish to have this dead leaf and plant matter building up in our beds so the remedy to having neat looking gardens while at the same time not wasting this amazing and free source of nitrogen is to collect it up and compost it ourselves. Containers are one way of accomplishing this. Compost bins come in many types and sizes from on the ground bins that look like upside down trash bins, 3 compartment wooden pallet compost set ups, to compost tumblers that are up off the ground away from critters.

There are 2 main ways of creating compost: Hot Composting – where organic matter heats up (like in the container system type of composting); and Direct Composting – which is decomposition with help from microbial life in the soil (which is more often how it happens in nature).  Hot composting is using some type of container or contained area. The balance of nitrogen to carbon (green to brown) is crucial for successful contained composting. 2 parts nitrogen (leftover green kitchen scraps, grass clippings, coffee grounds, apple cores) to 1-part carbon (dried leaves, twigs, chopped up straw) is the green to brown ratio you are aiming for.  Direct composting in the home garden is burying your fresh kitchen scraps and dead leaves directly into your garden beds and tree wells. The mycorrhiza and earthworms in the soil will break it down for you in the shortest amount of time of all the composting methods.

Moisture is a very important component of the composting process. If your compost is too dry, those banana peels will simply mummify instead of breaking down nicely. If it is too wet, things will start to smell. Just damp is perfect.

Funny story, my mother would put everything into her compost bin including her old leather shoes! But if you don’t feel comfortable going that far, don’t overlook other things that could be composted like pet fur and that old 100% cotton tee with all the holes (carbon).

What not to compost? Never compost dog, cat or human feces in your backyard garden compost because of pathogens that could be present. But rabbit, chicken and goat manure are actually great additions to a compost pile. Do not compost Bermuda grass, weed seeds, oleanders or eucalyptus leaves. The grass and seeds often survive through the composting process and oleanders and eucalyptus generate their own growth inhibitors, keeping other plants from competing with them so you definitely don’t need that in your finished compost. Glossy paper and sawdust from treated wood (pressure treatment, paint, varnish, etc.) should always be avoided because the chemicals in these do not break down. I was also taught not to compost any of the nightshade plants which include tomato, peppers and eggplant because these plants are all easily susceptible to plant diseases, possibly surviving through the process of common composting. While it is not a good idea to put meat, fat or dairy in your regular compost bin, you absolutely can put them into an earthworm bin.

Which brings us to very specific, targeted ways of composting including vermicomposting (using earthworms to break down organic matter in an enclosed earth worm bin) and a Japanese technique called “Bokashi” composting. Bokashi composting is actually the fermentation of organic matter using the Bokashi bran to ferment anaerobically.

How do you know when your compost is ready to be used in your garden? It should be fully broken down into dark, rich matter that looks like soil because that is exactly what it is. There should be no odor except for a pleasant earthy smell. Any chunks or twigs that might not have fully decomposed can be thrown back into the compost to age and break down some more. Some people sift their compost so they can use the fully decomposed parts sooner.

Composting is the ultimate way to recycle, closing the loop in nature’s growing cycle.

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