Consider Composting

by Andrea Laine, EMGV

A few years ago I decided to begin composting, again. I had tried twice before in different places I had lived. Neither of those first two attempts were successful. There must be something to the saying: ‘Third time’s a charm,’ because I have fallen in love with composting.

Composting is the act of creating compost in your own backyard. Compost is decayed organic matter that once fully broken down makes an outstanding soil amendment for all kinds of plants, shrubs and trees.

Briggs compost
A three-bin unit is a more productive composting set-up and ideal for large amounts of yard and garden waste. This unit is at the Briggs Avenue Community Garden in Durham, which is on land owned by NC State and maintained with the help of Extension master gardeners. photo credit: Andrea Laine

Benefits of Composting
Compost improves the physical properties of the soil:  its color, texture, structure, depth, and water capacity. Compost also supplies the soil with essential nutrients, mainly nitrogen and carbon. Nitrogen supports foliage growth and green color; It easily leaches from soil so it is important to replenish it. Carbon improves soil aeration, and water drainage and retention.

Composting is easier than I imagined it would be and helpful in so many ways. It is an excellent way to recycle yard trimmings and natural kitchen scraps year round. I no longer feel guilty about fruits or vegetables going bad before I have a chance to eat them; What does not feed me will feed my compost pile and, ultimately, my garden.

Home-made compost saves money. With a little effort and consistent attention, the pile builds up and breaks down quickly. Thus, I almost always have compost when I want it. Each spring I treat perennials and shrubs by working a shovelful in to the top few inches of soil under the plant canopy.

Siting and Building a Compost Pile
There are two ways to start backyard composting. You can purchase a commercially-manufactured bin or build your own enclosure. I have tried both types and much prefer the DIY approach as it is easier to maintain, especially when it comes to balancing moisture and aeration levels which are important components to a productive pile. A 4×4 cubic-foot enclosure is ideal. The sides must not be solid so air can pass through and around the pile.

Choose the right site for your composting. The first time I tried composting I placed my pile at the rear of a long, narrow acre. Its distant location, behind a shrub border no less, turned out to be inconvenient and, therefore largely ignored. My current pile is just behind a detached garage, out of sight yet still easy to access.

my compost structure
I used four shipping pallets to build my compost bin. Three of the pallets are crudely fastened in two places, using a wood block and nails, to provide structure. The slatted sides provide aeration. The fourth side is purposely unattached so I can access the pile to aerate or shovel out ‘finished’ compost. Photo: A. Laine

It takes about three to six months to produce finished compost using the “hot pile” method. The “cold pile” method will take about a year or longer. The difference being the temperature and moisture of the pile. Compost is ready to use when it is dark brown, has a light and crumbly texture similar to potting soil, and has a pleasant, earthy scent.

compost thermometer
Pile temperatures must exceed 131°F to kill most pathogens harmful to humans and pets, and they must surpass 145°F to destroy most weed seeds. Any kind of thermometer will do for this purpose. Photo: A. Laine

Feeding a Compost Pile
Ideally, begin with a layer of twigs and small branches to provide some structure and ventilation at the bottom of the pile. On top of that, add a layer of dead leaves and then a handful of soil to initiate microorganisms.

Contributions to the compost pile are commonly characterized as “browns” and “greens.” Browns are sugar-rich carbon sources that provide energy to microorganisms. Greens are protein-rich nitrogen sources that provide moisture to microorganisms. Composting works because microorganisms in the pile (such as bacteria, fungi, algae, protozoa and nematodes) feed on this brown and green matter, converting it to what we recognize as soil.

compost carbon
Decaying branches from the woodland floor are great ‘brown’ additions to the compost pile. Photo: A. Laine

Materials I often add to my compost pile include:  coffee grinds and tea bags, dryer lint and floor sweepings, fruit and vegetable peelings, stems from herbs, flower stalks and dead blossoms, egg shells, and twigs that litter the ground. Since Durham County has a very good curb recycling program, I route my newspapers, cardboard and other paper scraps to the recycling bin. The nitrogen content of paper is low and would slow the pile’s decomposition rate, so it is best not to compost paper. Avoid pine needles, too; their waxy coating resists decay. I err on the side of caution and do not add weeds to my compost.

ceramic pail
You can purchase a decorative ceramic pail like this one for about $25, or a plastic utility bucket with handle for $5. Whatever you choose, make sure it has a lid to contain odors, and commit to emptying it regularly. photo: A. Laine

Tips for Composting Success

  1. Piles three to five feet high stay hot best.
  2. Smaller pieces compost faster; Take the time to cut deposits into two-inch pieces.
  3. Turn the pile weekly to aerate it and hasten breakdown of material. If it is too difficult to turn, at least poke holes in it. I use a pitch fork, but there is such a tool as a composting fork that may be easier/better.
  4. Add a handful of soil every now and then to initiate microorganisms.
  5. Occasionally, I add water to the bucket of household waste before dumping it on the pile; approximately 40 to 60 percent moisture is needed in the pile. (Water in the bucket also helps to fully empty its contents.)
  6. Rinse eggshells and set them aside. Once fully dry, crush them to hasten their breakdown.
  7. Pour a layer of dead leaves or rotting twigs (‘browns’) over fresh vegetable trimmings (‘greens’) to dissuade critters from entering the pile.
  8. Strive for a ratio mix of 2:1 “brown” to “greens.”
  9. Animal manure may contain composting-resistant herbicides. See NC State Extension publication Herbicide Carryover in Hay, Manure, Compost & Grass Clippings: Caution to Hay Producers, Livestock Owners, Farmers & Home Gardeners if you add manure to your pile.

I love having a compost pile for its utility in providing nutritious soil for my garden and a place for the recycling of vegetable trimmings, egg shells, and other organic household waste that would otherwise end up in a landfill somewhere. I can, and do, compost year-round. During cold weather the pile is unlikely to get hot enough to break down new additions. No worries though; Being North Carolinians, we know that warm weather will soon return.

References and Resources
How to build a compost bin:

The do and don’ts of adding matter to a compost pile:

A list of Extension publications on home composting:

Soil and the carbon cycle: