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A composting bin with lawn clippings.

AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala. – Composting, or the process of converting plant debris into useful soil additives, is a great option for supplying key nutrients to the soil while also recycling yard and kitchen waste. As organic matter in the soil decomposes, nutrients released back into the soil are used by plants. Composting can greatly increase soil organic matter.

“Composting is beneficial for a variety of reasons,” said Lucy Edwards, an Alabama Extension home grounds, gardens and pests regional agent. “You are reducing the amount of waste sent to the landfill, while also creating wonderful soil for plants and saving money on gardening soil.”

Benefits

Composting can produce a wide variety of benefits, including:

  • improving soil structure.
  • increasing the water holding capacity.
  • increasing air space in the soil.
  • helping to loosen compacted soils, therefore improving drainage.
  • promoting soil fertility.
  • stimulating root development.
  • creating a favorable environment for beneficial microorganisms.

Materials

Grass clippings, leaves and small cuttings are beneficial compost materials placed behind shrubs or hidden in the corner of a yard. These materials speed up the decomposition process.

Kitchen waste, such as coffee grounds, eggshells and fruit and vegetable scraps, are also a good source of compost material. Compost bins for these materials are commercially available in many different forms.

According to Edwards, bins can be made easily at home with three solid walls and an opening on the fourth side.

“This is ideal for many who plan to actively use their compost, yet they can still contain it within the walls,” Edwards said.

Microorganisms

Microorganisms are often the driving factor of the composting process. Adequate carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and moisture are necessary to keep microorganisms healthy for faster compost. Close monitoring of these factors increases health of the microorganisms and facilitates faster decomposition. This will allow rich compost for amending soil and fertilizing plants.

“Microorganisms break down the materials in compost piles and use certain components for their own energy and protein,” Edwards said.

In addition to sources of carbon and nitrogen, it is crucial that microorganisms receive appropriate amounts of water and air in a compost pile.

Tips

Successful composting relies on a multitude of factors. Follow the tips bellow when composting:

  • Bins are helpful, but they are not necessary.
  • Composting can take anywhere from four to six weeks to one to two years. The type and size of material and amount of attention that it receives affect the timeline.
  • Microbes require proper moisture to survive. Covering the pile means retaining moisture and preventing materials from getting soggy with rain.
  • A sunny location is better than a shady one, as maintaining heat is important for faster composting.
  • To achieve the right proportion of carbon and nitrogen, combine different materials in the pile. Examples are leaves and grass clippings.
  • The optimum carbon to nitrogen ratio is 30:1.
  • Burying kitchen waste inside the pile prevents odor and discourages pests.
  • Frequent turning of the pile speeds up decomposition and decreases odor. Turn it with a pitchfork or stir it on a weekly basis in warm weather. Stabbing the pile with a pipe or rake handle allows for aeration and mixing of the materials.
  • Never add animal fat, dairy products or meat to a compost pile.

More Information

For more information about composting and other home and garden topics, visit Alabama Extension online or contact your local Extension office to see what programs are available near you.

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