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Compost Happens

But a little help from you doesn’t hurt

This compost is happenin'. Photo by Mary Reed.

Scrapping the habit of tossing all your waste into the garbage can starts with, well, scraps. Composting - the decomposition of organic matter into a usable fertilizer - reduces and reuses what would be sent to the landfill.

"A lot of times, if you read in garden magazines, it will say to amend your soil with organic matter," says Terri Turner, a horticulture technician at the Boone County Office of Kentucky Cooperative Extension. "Instead of going out and buying it, you can make it yourself."

Here are some helpful tips for composting in your own back yard:

The science. By putting biodegradable materials such as vegetable scraps, coffee grounds and twigs outside together, they will decompose with the help of bacteria and earthworms from your yard. "The rate of decomposition will be faster if you keep the compost slightly moist and turn (it)," Terri says. Adding some soil to the initial mixture is a good compost starter, as it brings in bacteria and attracts earthworms.

The structure. Compost piles come in all shapes and sizes, starting with the classic compost heap: it’s as simple as it sounds – toss food scraps into a heap. Or try a structure to house the compost. Pre-made structures can be expensive, so try building your own.

"You can just get a wire mesh that they use to reinforce concrete with and make a loop," Terri says, recommending 3 feet in diameter for a good size. "Some people will build a nice one out of wooden planks or pallets," she adds. Ventilation is key, so even just putting holes in the bottom of a garbage can makes an acceptable compost container. Meat, pet crap, oils and dressings will attract animals. Investing in a lid for the structure also will keep animals at bay.

If you are a member of a homeowner's association, avoid possible fines by checking for regulations about compost piles and how far away from your street or house they need to be. If your neighborhood so fancy as to frown on compost heaps, you can afford to buy an enclosed compost container that your neighbors won’t even notice.

The results. Some telltale signs that the compost is decomposing properly are an earthy smell and dark brown color. "The ingredients shouldn’t be recognizable," Terri says. "You shouldn’t be able to say, 'Those are vegetable peelings.'"

Cutting the compost contents into smaller pieces helps yield faster results. The compost is usable as fertilizer when the contents are no longer identifiable. This can take weeks or months depending on how much attention you give your compost pile.

The rewards. Aside from providing free soil amendment, composting also reduces waste sent to landfills. Although much of the waste sent there is biodegradable, it doesn't always decompose properly. "People do think it will break down eventually, but you know those big piles may not have oxygen," Terri says.

If you live in a city that charges to pick up yard collections, a compost pile offers an inexpensive way to use leaves and twigs without having to pay the city to take them away.

Starting your compost heap
1. Start with a layer of coarse material like branches and twigs to allow air flow.
2. Add six inches of leaves and other woody materials, grass clippings, kitchen wastes and garden waste.
3. Occasionally turn the pile and cover with grass clippings or dirt.

From kitchen to yard
Get an easy-to-clean container and keep it in your kitchen. Make it large enough to hold a day or two’s worth of kitchen scraps but small enough that you can’t actually start composting under the sink. Put compost in there until it’s time to take it out back.