Composting 101

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Bring up the topic of composting and you will get no shortage of opinions. Gardeners call it black gold. Recyclers see it as good for the earth. Some see it as a work in progress. Many see it as a mix of all of the above. 

"We actually have three compost (bins)," says Trina Dietz, a passionate gardener and composter for more than five years. "I have this image in my head from childhood: We were driving through Chicago, and there were these big hills. My parents explained they were garbage dumps that had been covered over with earth. Every time I throw something into the composter, it isn’t going into one of those hills."

Some people love the idea of composting, but there’s a lot of information out there and a lot of products. So, where to begin?

Composting is not as simple as tossing all your food scraps and leaves into a bin (things like meat, milk, and oils may attract animals and not decompose very well). Compost is a mixture of decayed organic matter that breaks down and is used for fertilizer. This practice has been around for centuries and allows people to create usable materials for their gardens and farms from what would otherwise be waste.

Essential elements


There is no "best" compost bin, according to Deborah L. Brown and Carl J. Rosen of the University of Minnesota Extension service. Get one that makes it easy for you to perform essential tasks, like turning the mixture and adding items to the mix. Olmsted County has home compost bins for sale through the Recycling Association of Minnesota, and there are plenty of online options, including countertop bins with handles for easy turning.

It is also important for the compost heap to heat to 130 degrees Fahrenheit. It should be moist, not soggy. Things to add include leaves, grass, or plant trimmings. "Many organic materials can be composted besides grass and leaves: nonwoody shrub trimmings or twigs less than 1/4 inch in diameter, faded flowers, weeds, leftover plants at the end of the gardening season, lake plants, straw, coffee grounds, eggshells, fruit and vegetable scraps, shredded newspaper (black and white print), small amounts of wood ash, and sawdust," according to Brown and Rosen.

There are a few things you want to avoid adding to your compost. "Pet feces can transmit diseases," the duo said. "Meat, bones, grease, whole eggs, and dairy products attract rodents and other animals. Badly diseased or insect-infested plants and weeds that are loaded with seed may not heat up enough to be rendered harmless." 

You may have heard to leave out weeds or plants that have gone to seed, since they can spread. The key to bringing in weeds and problem plants, however, is heat. Place them in a plastic bag and leave them in the sun to fry them a bit before adding them to your compost pile.

Simple cues

Most composters, like most gardeners, are always learning something new. They find it is as much an art as it is a science. But one of the first – and most reassuring– things to know is that newbies can rely on common sense. 

For instance, if your compost pile smells bad, something is wrong. Compost should have a slight smell, but never one that is overpowering.  At The Spruce blog, Colleen Vanderlinden explains the key to fixing a stinky compost pile is balance and rhythm. Vanderlinden suggests checking nitrogen-rich greens (which include grass and yard trimmings, coffee grounds, veggie and fruit scraps) and carbon-rich browns (fall leaves, twigs, corn stalks, paper, dryer lint). The pile might be too wet or too dry. You might have some meat, dairy, or other undesirable elements in the mix. 

You also want to create a rhythm in how you maintain and move the pile. If you haven’t turned it, start there. "Turning adds oxygen to the bin, which will result in a better-smelling pile and faster compost production," Vanderlinden explains. Make sure you’re alternating adding greens and browns to create a balance even before turning the pile.



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