By Elizabeth Haegele, The Scott Arboretum
I live in a small one bedroom apartment in the middle of the city, just like thousands of other people. My “yard” consists of a small cement patio, which is really just a place for me and my neighbors to store our garbage cans and put our charcoal grill in the summer months. So why would I care about compost? Because compost is really just decomposed organic matter which exists in nature all around us, and which is used by gardeners to provide nutrients and food to their soil and plants. So even for a city dweller like myself, I’ve got houseplants, containers out front, and my community garden plot that can all benefit from compost.
Composting for me is a little more challenging because of the lack of outdoor space that I can call my own, but there are many ways that gardeners like me and people seeking ways to recycle can incorporate composting into their daily lives. It has been estimated that over half of all household waste that ends up in landfills could have been composted. Additionally, gardeners buy millions of tons of soil conditioners, mulch and growing media every year. Wouldn’t it make more sense for us to turn our waste into food for our soil by composting?
I decided to invest in a small yet attractive countertop container for my kitchen where I put all of my kitchen scraps that are suitable for my compost pile, such as crushed eggshells, vegetable and fruit peels and leaves, and coffee grounds. The lid has an activated-carbon filter that traps odors so neither my cats nor I can smell what’s inside. When it gets full, I bring the contents, as well as the past week’s newspaper (that I’ve shredded) down to my community garden where the pile of compost (that is about a cubic yard in size) is continually added to all year long.
Creating compost from garden and kitchen waste is a fairly straightforward process. There are a few key things to remember. Keep a balance between carbon and nitrogen by using the general rule of thumb of putting three parts soft, green waste to one part woody waste into your pile. Because composting is an aerobic process, you can never have too much air, so remember to either turn your pile regularly with a pitchfork, or add paper and cardboard to your pile to give it structure. Moisture is another important factor to keep your eye on. Once your compost pile starts breaking down, take a handful from the center of it. If you can squeeze just a few drops of moisture out of it, then your pile is in good shape. If it’s wetter, add more woody waste or paper to dry things out a bit.
You’ll know when your compost is ready. Over the course of the first year, you will see your organic matter break down into something that you will recognize as compost, although it won’t look like the well sifted perfect compost from pictures in magazines. When about 80% of your compost has “fine” particles, you should feel ready to incorporate it into your garden.