Have You Tried Backyard Composting?

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Each year more than 160 million tons of food waste are generated in the United States. It is estimated that food waste also make up about a quarter of the refuse going into the landfill. In Yancey County, the cost of hauling refuse from the recycling center to the landfill is covered by local tax dollars. So, any practice that will minimize waste going into the landfill will be greatly beneficial. One way that you can help with this effort is to begin backyard composting of yard, garden and food wastes. In addition to reducing garbage cost, turning your food waste into compost can greatly benefit the home garden or landscape.

How Does Composting Work

Composting is a fairly simple process. Gather the appropriate mix of “brown” and “green” organic materials into a pile, make sure the pile includes the right amount of moisture that the moisture level is maintained, and manage the pile to have enough oxygen to support microorganisms that will heat the pile to 140 to 150°F.

There are two basic methods of composting which include the single batch method and the continuous pile method. When using the single batch method, materials are added all at once to form a pile. However, when using the continuous pile method, organic materials are added as they become available. Regardless of the method that is implemented, the compost pile should be built to be three to five feet high and at least three feet in diameter so it can become self-insulating. Otherwise, the pile may not heat up to promote the desired type of decomposition.

What Materials Can Be Composted

There are many materials that can be added to the compost pile. They are typically characterized as “browns” and “greens”.

Brown materials usually provide a source of carbon. These materials provide energy to microorganisms, absorb moisture, and provide structure to the pile. “Browns” include materials such as fallen leaves, newspaper, straw, sawdust, napkins, cardboard, twigs, hay, dryer lint and bark.

Green materials are those that provide nitrogen to the compost pile. They typically provide the necessary moisture to the compost pile. Greens may include vegetables and fruit, coffee grounds, tea leaves, livestock manures or alfalfa.

Of course, there are a few organic materials that should not be added to the compost pile because they may cause the compost to contain parasites or pathogens, release substances that may cause harm to plants, cause odors that may attract rodents, other wildlife and flies, or may resist decay. Some of these materials include dog feces, cat litter, dirty diapers, meat, bones, fish, grease, lard, or weeds that have gone to seed.

Check out the NC State Extension publication “Backyard Composting of Yard, Garden and Food Discards” for a more detailed list of organic materials that may be added to your compost pile, and a more complete list of the materials that should not be added.

Benefits of Home Composting for the Home Garden or Landscape

Adding compost to garden plants can be greatly beneficial to them. When mixed with soil, compost increases the organic matter content, improves water and nutrient holding capacity of the soil mixture, supplies essential nutrients, and otherwise enhances the soil’s ability to support plant growth. Compost can also be applied to the soil surface to conserve moisture, control weeds, reduce erosion, improve appearance, and keep the soil from gaining or loosing heat too rapidly. Composting just makes sense!

A Note About Where to Use Home-made Compost

For compost to be safe, it must heat up to the appropriate temperature (140°F). This is the temperature that will kill most weed seeds and pathogens on garden food scraps. Commercial composting facilities keep detailed records to make sure their compost is safe for home gardens. However, due to the nature and process of home composting, most home compost piles probably do not heat up enough to rid fruit and vegetable food waste of disease pathogens. For this reason, it is best to utilize home compost in the landscape as opposed to the vegetable garden. Most vegetable disease pathogens that would be found on food scraps, which might survive the composting process in a home compost pile, will not be concern when applied to landscape plants.

If you would like to learn more about backyard home composting or if you have specific questions, feel free to contact David Davis (david_davis@ncsu.edu) or call the N.C. Cooperative Extension, Yancey County Center by calling (828) 682-6186.