Organic Compost: Materials to Benefit Your Soils

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A Brief History

In 1921, the first industrial station for the transformation of urban organic materials into compost was set up in Wels, Austria.  Today, gardeners generally are pretty enthusiastic about the concept of composting for their soils. Although the concept of breaking down organic materials into something your plants can utilize is an easy enough concept, many find it difficult to get started with the whole composting bin idea. If you are ready to jump into the composting world, it won’t be long before you ask yourself why you didn’t do it sooner, since all you truly need is an area you can pile your materials.

Digging Deeper

Composting Spaces

Home compost barrel.  Photograph by Diego Grez at English Wikipedia.

First off, there is no reason why you have to make any large investments in compost bins or other supplies to create a space to compost in. Although an enclosed composter or DIY space is helpful and can speed up the process, it is not entirely necessary. In fact, if you want to get started today you can- simply find an area in your yard that is out of the way and start piling up materials. If you want to block it off, go find a few free wood pallets and create a rudimentary bin for the cost of a few nails and about a half hour worth of work.

What Exactly is Compost?

This figure represents the different paths of disposal for organic waste.  Chart by Kmreese.

Composting is the word used to describe the process of decomposition that organic materials undergo that results in a rich material used to enrich your soil and feed your plants. The resulting substrate is full of nutrients, beneficial microbes and insects, and helps keep your soil healthy. Making your own compost is an excellent way to dispose of your organic wastes, and provide an easily accessible, free way to augment your soils for moisture and drainage. Plus, the use of compost in various ways allows for an easy uptake of nutrients to keep your plants growing and producing.

Popular Compost Starters

Inside a recently started bokashi bin. Food scraps are raised on a perforated plate (to drain runoff) and are partly covered by a layer of bran inoculated with Lactobacilli.  Photograph by Pfctdayelise.

The best compost is a mixture, of course, organic yard and house waste (called brown and green material respectively). In fact, it is suggested to start with certain materials, such as grass clippings, small branches, plant cuttings, and the such from your yard to create a good foundation into which you can mix certain household wastes.

  • Grass clippings: If you have a yard you know the importance of keeping it looking green. Cutting it regularly helps maintain healthy roots and growth. Reel mowers are a popular choice as they have no emission and little compression impact on soils- and the clippings are easily left to mulch, or rake up to place in compost.
  • Leaves, stalks, and wood chips: Backyard Boss recommends investing in a decent wood chipper or if you want, just manually chop these up to tiny bits to make them break down faster, but adding them in as is is better than nothing. This slightly larger material may decompose more slowly, but they also allow for aeration and easy access of moisture into the layers.
  • Paper products and dryer lint: as long as there is no glue involved, you can toss your paper products and fabrics in the compost! Tissues, paper plates, newspapers, napkins, shredded cloth, lines, and coffee filters provide a great composting base.
  • You also can add in commercial fertilizers to the course mixture to add nitrogen and help speed up the process. But if you are going wholly organic you may want to avoid this. If you want a good source of natural nitrogen sources, consider adding in manure from grass-eating animals, poultry manure, fish byproducts, bone or blood meal, or chopped alfalfa.

Other Materials to Compost

Food scraps compost heap.  Photograph by Philip Cohen.

Once you have a good foundation of materials, you will want to mix in a variety of other wastes and organic byproducts that will decompose and mix with the course brown organics. These may include, but are not limited to:

  • Food scraps: vegetable peelings, fruit cores and seeds, banana peels, and eggshells are all examples of food waste that can make their way into the compost. Basically, you want to avoid processed oils and such, but most will easily decompose rather quickly to provide rich nutrients to your compost.
  • Coffee grounds and tea bags: coffee and tea remnants are excellent additions to your compost. They provide a good acidic base as well and are excellent ways to help amend soils.
  • Unseeded weeds: unseeded weeds are often delicate in nature still and provide good organic materials to your decomposition process.

The Bottom Line

Three years old household compost.  Photograph by Derzsi Elekes Andor.

Composting does not have to be something you only think about anymore. With a little bit of basic information, you can create your own compost pile, or bin, from which to pull rich organics with which you can mix into your own soils. Keep in mind that it does not take any large investment to get started, and with a little patience and consistent addition of organic materials, you can start your own composting project!

Question for students (and subscribers): Have you ever used organic compost?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Foster, Clare.  Compost: How to make and use organic compost to transform your garden.  Mitchell Beazley, 2014.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Sebastian Ballard from geograph.org.uk of organic compost Sherfield on Loddon garden centre, was taken from the Geograph project collection.  See this photograph’s page on the Geograph website for the photographer’s contact details.  The copyright on this image is owned by Sebastian Ballard and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

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Abdul Alhazred

“But I don’t want to go among mad people," Alice remarked. "Oh, you can’t help that," said the Cat: "we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad." "How do you know I’m mad?" said Alice. "You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn’t have come here.” ― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland