Composting: The Basics

By Sarah Mooney


New Jersey in February is not quite beach weather, and it is not very conducive to gardening. That being said, I've found that keeping a compost pile is a great low maintenance way to feel connected to the growing season before it arrives. The benefits of composting are many, but here are a few of the main reasons I've started my own pile:

Why Compost?

1. I recently bought a juicer and couldn't stand to trash the left over pulp. Composting is a great way for me to use all of the produce I purchase, whether it's pulp in the juicer or that spinach I forgot about at the bottom of the fridge.

2. A compost pile enriches the soil you use in your garden beds and will save you money on fancy fertilizers.

3. It's recycling. If you don't reuse compostable items, they will probably end up in a landfill. That's sad news for the nutrients in your banana peel and sad news for the plant life that won't be enhanced by those nutrients.

These are three very basic reasons why composting is a smart idea, but you can certainly find more extensive discussions about microorganisms, the breakdown of organic matter, and other scientific information regarding how the process works. For me as a beginner, the basics will suffice for now.

What To Compost?

There is a lot information about compositing on the web, and some of it is intimidating. Personally, at this stage in the game I'm not sure how to check the nitrogen content of my compost ingredients, so I opted for a simpler way of discerning what to put in and what to keep out of my pile.

- Greens: This is the stuff from your kitchen and green stuff from your yard. Do not use meat, bones or dairy products. Do use egg shells, tea and coffee grounds, fruit and vegetable scraps, nut shells, grass clippings, etc.

- Browns: Sick of all those dead leaves in your yard? Add them to your compost pile! Also add sticks, twigs, cardboard, straw, etc. Note: A side effect of composting could be a cleaner yard.

- Moisture: I started my compost pile in an area of my yard that receives extended sun exposure because I decided to do my research after I made my pile. Fortunately for me, the only huge difference this makes is that my pile may dry up much faster than if it were in the shade. Maintaining moisture (do not soak your compost) content in your compost pile is a big deal, so you may find yourself watering your pile every so often.

Developing Your Process

There are plenty of ways to create your compost pile. Some people purchase a compost bin, which can be useful if you are lacking in yard space. I chose to create my compost directly on the ground, though there are many options including concrete or a wooden pallet.

Running to your compost pile immediately when you acquire new material can be time consuming and impractical, so keeping a container in your kitchen is a good middle man in the process. Again, there is a range of potential containers. My choice is an air tight plastic bin that I store under my kitchen sink. You might choose to use a small garbage bin, but I recommend selecting something with a lid that will prevent anything from entering or leaving. Lids can deter pests and also block odor.

Turning your compost pile aids in the creation of humus, which is what everything you add to your pile eventually becomes. With a shovel, a pitch fork, or any other tool that works for you, you can turn your pile. I've read that some people do this every time they add to their pile, and I've also read that some people never turn their pile. Personally, I give my pile a little turn every time I add to it.

So there you have it! These are the basics of getting your compost pile going. One thing I love about composting is that there is so much to learn, so once you get going you can continue to fine tune your process and discover new tricks. Good luck!

Sarah is new to gardening and eager to share her discoveries in hopes of clarifying the process for fellow beginners. Her other hobbies include making art, baking and exercising when she isn't busy studying for her Master's Degree in Social Work.