Living the Rural Lifestyle: Composting 101
For many people, working the land with anything from a small flower or vegetable garden to crops is a big part of living in the country. If that’s true for you, have you considered composting? Compost is like black gold for your soil, infusing it with nutrients and fertility. In short, it helps your plants grow. You can buy compost, but why? You've already got everything you need.
We're talking, of course, about your food waste and livestock, even if you just have a few chickens. Composting lets you utilize it all, turning waste and manure into sustenance for your garden. The tasks of clearing the table or cleaning the horse stalls or your coop won't be as unpleasant if you know you're gathering valuable nutrients for your crops or garden, and saving money in the process.
The benefits of composting are many. According to the EPA, composting enriches your soil, helps it retain all-important moisture and also reduces diseases and pests. Store-bought, chemical fertilizers will be a thing of the past for you. It's good for the environment, too. Composting reduces methane emissions from landfills.
For basic composting, you need three ingredients.
Also called dry ingredients, this can be anything from dead leaves, branches and twigs, to sawdust, hay from your horse stalls, and any dry, organic materials you're using outside around your home and yard.
These are wet ingredients, such as food scraps, coffee grounds and egg shells. Basically, it covers much (but not all) of the food you're scraping off of your family's dinner plates and into the disposal or the trash. Manure is basically pre-mixed browns and greens because when you're cleaning out your stalls or coop, you're gathering bedding (browns) along with manure (greens).
One word says it all.
What can I compost?
You get the concept of composting being a mixture of browns (dry) and greens (wet). But what, exactly, should you include? Here are some specifics, from the EPA:1
- Fruits and veggies
- Most food scraps (see below for exceptions)
- Coffee grounds
- Tea bags
- Dryer and vacuum cleaner lint (yes, you can!)
- Hair and fur
- Shredded newspaper
- Grass clippings
- Leaves and twigs
- Other organic animal bedding
- Wood chips
- Ashes from your fireplace or fire pit
What NOT to compost
There are some items you should definitely not put in your compost pile. Mainly, it's chemically treated lawn clippings and diseased weeds or plants, because they'll transfer those chemicals and disease to your garden when you use the compost; and food scraps that will attract rodents or pests. Here's a list.1
- Leaves or twigs from black walnut trees, because they release harmful substances
- Dairy products including butter, milk, sour cream, yogurt
- Diseased plants or weeds
- Chemically treated lawn clippings
- Fats, grease, lard and oil, ditto about attracting pests
- Meat or fish bones and scraps
Where should I compost?
Now the question becomes, where do you put all of those scraps? When it comes to the location of your compost pile or bin, it's about finding the best spot.
Your ideal location should be:
- Easily accessible, but not too close to the house. You don't want to smell it when you're sitting down to dinner! But you don't want to trek all the way across your property to compost your nightly table scraps.
- Level ground that's not prone to flooding or standing water.
- Sunny. Your compost needs light to do its thing. If the materials get too cold, it will slow the process.
- But not too sunny. If your compost gets too hot, it will dry out. Avoid areas with intense sunlight. A mix of sun and shade throughout the day is best.
- Close to your garden or crops. Compost is heavy, and you don't want to be lugging it all the way across the back 40.
- Roomy. You'll need to turn your compost from time to time, so you'll need room to work, and also to gather the compost to put to use.
Other composting tips
A few other tips:
- Your compost pile should get all the water it needs from rain. But if you're going through a dry period, water it. You'll want it to be damp, but not sopping wet.
- Cut large items like twigs or newspaper into smaller pieces. Small stuff decomposes faster.
- Turn the pile over periodically to aerate it.
- Be patient! It'll take anywhere from two to six months for your compost to be ready to use.2
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2. Iowa State University https://www.extension.iastate.edu/smallfarms/dos-and-donts-composting