Millions of tons of organic waste, including leaves, tree limbs, lawn clippings, weeds, and other debris that could have been repurposed through composting, ends up in landfills every year – and that’s just in Texas, according to that state’s AgriLife Extension Service. This “waste” can be composted to help you save money, and also it benefits society by helping with environmental issues. And Texas has only about 10% of the US population. Imagine the amount of this recyclable resource that is discarded in landfills across North America. You can help eliminate this waste, and save money in the process, by making your own compost.
Compost is the product of natural decomposition. Organic waste breaks down over time, creating a dark brown, nutrient rich material that resembles and acts like soil. In addition to saving taxpayer dollars spent to collect and dispose of organic waste, using it to make your own compost can directly save you money by reducing the amount of fertilizer and mulch you buy for your lawn, garden, and landscaping. I addition to that, it can help you with lowering the amount of your water bill. It isn’t that difficult to do and doesn’t require a great deal of time or work.
The ingredients and the process
The materials you probably have around the house, and probably currently throw away daily, that can be used to make compost include leaves, sticks, grass cuttings, weeds, leftover vegetables and fruits, egg shells, and even tea bags, coffee grounds, and the coffee filters, too. Anything along these same lines can also be used. Bacteria, fungi, worms, and soil-dwelling bugs, like pill bugs, feed off of this organic waste, eventually completing the process of turning it into nutrient-rich compost.
Making your own compost
You can compost with or without a composting bin. You can download instructions to make your own bin. The simplest are created using only a large plastic trash can and a drill to make air holes for ventilation. Or, if you wish, you can buy a bin from a home and garden supply. Starting prices are less than $100, but can go much higher if you want one that has built-in aeration and automates the process. The best method for composting does not require a bin at all. You simply pile the material up, perhaps enclosing it with some wire fencing to keep animals out. As noted, you can even start to compost with by spending only a few dollars by using a simple plastic bin.
Your bin or compost pile should be placed in an area that gets abundant sunshine. Composting requires heat, and the sunshine helps with that. Once you have your bin in place or have selected the location for your pile, start using it to dispose of your compostable organic waste. Chopping the material up first allows it to decompose faster.
There are two composting methods – hot and cold. For cold composting, you just add your waste to the bin or pile and allow it to deteriorate naturally over time. This can take a year or more, depending on the materials. Unless you buy an automated system as mentioned above, hot composting requires a bit more work on your part. It will, however, produce much faster results.
The reason composting without a bin is preferable is because you can make big piles that generate more heat and are easier to maintain if you are hot composting. If you have the space, you can also make separate piles. This allows you to add fresh waste to a newer pile rather than adding it to a pile where composting is nearly complete, thereby prolonging the process. Using piles also makes it easier to turn the material when needed.
To start a hot composting pile or bin, you’ll either need some really fertile soil likely to contain microorganisms or worms or some finished natural compost to jump start the decomposition process. For best results, if you have no compost on hand, pick up a bag or two at the garden supply store. Look for organic compost. You can probably find two cubic feet or so for a price of $5 to $8. This will be your “starter,” akin to the starter bakers use to make sourdough bread. After you make your first batch of compost, you can use some of it as starter for your next batch.
In your bin or pile, mix your chopped up organic waste with your starter, adding water until the mix is moist. Periodically, you’ll need to check the temperature of the pile. Ideally, it should be between 130 and 140 degrees. This is the best temperature range to maximize microbial activity and accelerate the decomposition process. If you do not have a soil thermometer, you can stick your hand into the mix. If it feels hot to the touch, but not hot enough to actually burn your skin, everything is working well. Steam rising from the pile also indicates things are going well. If the mix starts to cool down, you will need to turn it or remix it to restart the decomposition process.
Make sure to keep your mix moist, but not wet. Water is essential to the process. Too much water, however, will slow decomposition. If your mix begins to cool and/or to produce foul odors, it is probably too wet. You’ll need to turn it to aerate and allow it to dry it out some. You can also add some sawdust or dry grass to the mix if it is really wet.
A good rule of thumb, regardless of whether your mix is cooling down or is too wet, is to turn it about once a week. Depending on conditions and what is in your mix, maintaining it using this and other recommendations should yield finished compost in anywhere from three weeks to two months, much faster than the cold composting method that can take a year or more.
Your finished compost should be dark brown in color and have a bit of a sweet smell. It should crumble easily in your fingers. You may also see a bit of organic waste mixed in that hasn’t fully decomposed.
Once you’ve finished your first batch, you can use it to fertilize your lawn, your flower beds, and your vegetable garden. It will save you money as you will not have to pay as much for your own soil, mulch, and it can lower your water bills. You can also use it as a mulch that returns essential nutrients to the soil beneath. You’ll save on water usage because the compost helps your soil to retain moisture. And finally, you’ll save money while eliminating the need to collect and dump your recyclable organic waste into a landfill.