Is Composting In Your Future?

Examples of composting units.

Master Gardener Scoop – May 30, 2018

By Julie Karmeier,
Master Gardener

You may not think that composting is a very interesting subject, but for most gardeners it is a way of obtaining nutrient rich soil at no cost – just a bit of labor.

Everything decomposes at some point so why not take advantage of utilizing those kitchen vegetable and fruit scraps, lawn clippings and other garden waste into wonderfully rich black soil.

So how do you start?

First, you need to select a technique and style that fits your lifestyle. Consider how much space you have, what materials are available, how you plan to use the compost and how you want it to look.

Some compost piles are simply that – a pile that you add to as you discard your garden waste, grass clippings, leaves, etc.

This is called Heap composting.

The minimum space recommended by most sources is 3’ X 3’ X 3’. Perhaps a “pile” is not exactly what you want.

Big box stores, garden centers, Amazon, etc. are all happy to sell you various compost containers. Some of these have turning mechanisms which will aid in helping to aerate and mix the compost.

While these may perform reasonably well, they are small.

You might want to consider building your own composting unit. These can be constructed from recycled pallets, lumber (preferably cedar or untreated pine), cinder blocks, bricks, metal barrels, etc.

Avoid using lumber treated with copper arsenate or creosote as these toxic compounds could leach into your compost.

Now that you have your container, what are you going to put into it?

Most sources suggest that layering brown (carbon producing) and green (nitrogen producing) biodegradables along with top soil or finished compost will give you the best results.

Think of this as constructing a lasagna. Instead of meat, noodles and cheese, you will be using BROWN (carbon-producing twigs, sawdust, dead leaves, wood chips, shredded newsprint or cardboard), GREEN (fruit peels and cores, veggie scraps, tea and coffee grounds, egg shells and grass clippings) and TOP SOIL or FINISHED COMPOST.

Keep in mind that the smaller the pieces that you compost the quicker the decomposition. Corn stalks, tomato vines, etc. should be chopped up before adding.

DO NOT compost pet waste, meats, eggs, dairy products or charcoal ash.

Don’t be frustrated if you can’t “layer” exactly as stated, everything will decompose eventually and you will have a finished product – it might just take a little longer.

Maintenance. Water should be added with each layer and as you continue to add waste during the summer.

Ideally, the pile should be turned once a week for the first month and then once every 4-5 weeks. You will know that the organic matter is breaking down when you start to see steam coming from the pile.

The compost should be ready in about 6 – 12 months depending on the size of the materials and the heat generated. The finished compost should be free of any trace of food waste and be dark, rich brown in color.

This is only a brief description of composting and if you would like more information, please contact your local University of Illinois Master Gardener or your local Extension Service office.