Some gardeners consider compost the black gold of the new millennium. The most dedicated of the bunch turn ordinary household debris into a rich, dark, crumbly material and use it to feed minerals and nutrients to their lawns and plants.
Gareth Blakesley, operations manager at Lake Katherine Nature Center & Botanic Gardens in Palos Heights, says the question of how to compost is one that easily can be answered by learning a few tricks of the trade. He also says what’s new really is old—that the popularity of composting today is the result of a circle of life pattern.
“People always used to compost in the past,” Blakesley said. “Then there was a period of time when people forgot about these basic ideas. And these basic ideas make sense because that’s what people did. They didn’t have a whole lot of money. They were like, ‘Well, I’ve got all this organic matter and I want to use it.’
“Nowadays, there is a resurgence in being green-minded—whatever that means. I think trying to reduce your waste is part of it. But you’re also trying to reduce your cost. Suppose someone is in a high-rise flat and they have a little balcony. They can actually get a little compost bin going out there.
“They sell these little pots. Some people call them vermiculate-type things. They actually have worms in there, and they get this juice out of it. They can put that on their pot plants outside, which is actually quite cool. So, that’s happening. They don’t have to spend money on fertilizers.
“People are thinking I don’t want to throw this tomato rind away or this watermelon rind—whatever. They can cut it up, put it in a jar and get something out of it. And they can use it. I think people like that. It’s kind of a connection with nature, sometimes in an urban setting. But I also think a lot of people are doing it when they can in suburban places, when they have a backyard. They feel like, ‘I don’t want to throw this stuff into a landfill.’
“It goes from the people who think, ‘It just makes sense to the people who want to think they’re more green-minded as well.’ ”
How to Compost
Blakesley said you’ll want to start by purchasing a compost bin or building one of your own. Think of a box with small slates cut into the sides to allow for oxygen flow. “It can be any size,” he said. “The bigger it is, the quicker it heats up.”
Collect garden debris and kitchen scraps. Blakesley is an expert in the field of native plants—and almost all things outdoors. He said it’s important to know that basic organic matter comes in two forms.
Brown matter is dryer and tends to be carbon-based, Blakesley said. Examples: Hay, twigs, paper, wood, cardboard, eggshells, tea bags.
Green matter tends to be nitrogenous and a little bit moist, Blakesley said. Examples: Vegetable bits, fruit rinds, grass clippings, coffee grounds, fresh hedge clippings.
“You want them to interact with each other to get the best benefit,” Blakesley said.
Layer the chopped up matter in your compost bin; turn it over every 14 days so that it will break down and transform into that black gold.
When can you start to use the compost to feed your lawn or garden plants? Blakesley said the answer varies depending on the size of your compost bin and the climate-region where the matter is decomposing.
“If you have a big compost and you’ve done everything right, it can generate a lot of heat,” Blakesley said. “Some people say within 21 days you can actually get a useable product. I think for most people that’s not going to happen. I think you wait for six months.
“You want a little bit of time to get going. The problem is people do things wrong. They throw whole branches into the pile. Until you experiment and know the nitty-gritty of the process, you’re not going to get a feel for what works. There’s always a learning curve.”
If your compost has a strong ammonia smell, it likely is too moist and has too many nitrogen-rich materials.
The fix: Add sawdust, shredded leaves, shredded newspaper or shredded cardboard to help dry out the pile.
If you compost smells rotten, you’ve likely added items to your pile that don’t belong. Blakesley puts the following on his short no-no list: Meat scraps, dairy products, lippids, bones.
The fix: Add leaves or sawdust to bury the smelly materials.
One Last Thing on Composting
Blakesley said to be careful and conscious of what you add to your compost pile.
“If you’ve just put fertilizer on your lawn and then you cut your grass and put that into your compost, your compost is not going to be organic,” he said. “It’s going to be OK. You can use it for different things. But it’s not going to be organic.
“So, that’s something to bear in mind. Like everything, knowing where your products come from and then where you’re putting them has a big impact on what you’re trying to do.”