Composting 101: Learning about God’s Original Recycling System

Don't waste your waste!

[Ed. note: this article is part of our series of weekly family activities called Family Fun, published on Fridays]

A compost system is essential for your sustainable yard, one which produces little waste and requires few inputs from outside.  It also demonstrates the beauty of God’s original no-waste system – microbes we never see, along with those humble earthworms, are quietly doing one of the most important jobs on the planet – nutrient recycling. Waste becomes plant food. Plants become people and animal food. It’s an amazing system we should take time to appreciate and thank God for!

Our soil here in Atlanta is so high in clay we can make pots out of it! But spending money on fertile soil is wasteful, so what to do? Compost! Taking stuff we don’t want (kitchen scraps and yard clippings) and turning it into something valuable just seems like a no-brainer.

What every gardener wants

While there are thousands of books and websites out there on composting, you don’t need a degree in microbiology. There are a few basics to remember in making it work well, and your children will enjoy learning too.

Fun facts about soil

Give your children a teaspoon and have them fill it with soil. Can they see anything moving around in it? There might be a worm, but it’s teeming with tiny creatures called microbes, only visible under a microscope. Guess how many there are.  In healthy soil there are about a hundred thousand protozoa, thirty million fungi, and two billion bacteria! These little guys work nonstop, transforming dead stuff in the yard into fabulous, fertile compost. Compost feeds plants so they produce more food for you and for the animals and birds that visit your yard. And like your kids when they play hard or work hard and get hot and sweaty, the microbes give off heat when they work. A working compost pile will get so hot you can even see steam rising off it on a chilly day!

Find the Right Location

Find a partly shady spot. Too much sun will overcook it, but a little sun in winter will help warm it. Good drainage is also important. For aesthetic reasons you may want it behind a shed or bushes. Make sure there’s easy access for adding to it and turning it.

Choose a Type

A very basic open bin for compost

Container or loose pile? Containers will keep more critters out than a pile, and keep it a little neater. Open or closed container? Closed containers keep out all the critters and are more aesthetic, but the simplest (a trash can with holes) are hard to turn, while the most elaborate (rotating drums) are expensive. You also have to add water to closed containers, whereas open bins let in the rain. I opted for an open bin because it is simple to build and use.

Size: It should be at least 3 feet in each direction to function best. You also need space to access it and turn it. If you have a very large yard, generating lots of leaves, grass clippings, and so on, you may want to create a larger system.

Build A Structure

Salvaged materials work well

There are many great plans for do-it-yourself containers on the internet, from simple to elaborate, including a home-made rotating drum. See what suits your skills and materials. The multi-bin approach is very efficient: you have one pile “cooking” that you don’t add to, and another one to which you add fresh materials. Scout the streets on trash day for stuff you can use, such as boards or pallets. Wire or plastic mesh of various sorts isn’t too expensive. Salvaging materials and building the bin can be a family project.  We found some chicken wire  and posts in the garage and thoroughly enjoyed putting something together in about an hour. Take care, the edges of the wire are sharp after cutting, and I used a staple gun to attach the wire – small children should not handle a staple gun!

Know (and Find) Your Ingredients

The essentials are simple. The main thing is that your microbe buddies need a balanced diet just like humans do. Their food is divided into greens and browns and they need about a 1:4 ratio of greens to browns by volume. You just have to know what’s what. Review these groups with your kids and recruit them to find sources from around your house and yard. You might even make a chart laying out the “recipe” for compost with pictures of the ingredients!

Kitchen scraps count as "greens"

Greens:

  • Fresh clippings: fresh leaves, green grass, flowers, green weeds
  • Fresh manure (horse, chicken, rabbit, cow – NOT dog/cat poop)
  • Kitchen scraps (fruit, vegetables, coffee grounds, tea bags, egg shells – NOT meat, oil, dairy, whole eggs, or cooked foods)

Browns:

  • Dry leaves
  • Dry grass & trimmings

Greens are high in nitrogen, and decompose quickly, but then turn to a slimy, wet pile devoid of air which then slows further decomposition. Browns are high in carbon, and also provide an airy structure. Without browns, your compost pile will stall and stink. Without greens it will just take a really long time, as you won’t get so many microbes. Smaller pieces will break down quicker than large ones so shred leaves and clippings before adding if possible. You can do it with a lawn mower, running it over your pile of leaves, or use a bagging lawn mower and collect the leaves as you mow the grass instead of raking.

Start off with 4" of brush and twigs

Start Your Pile: Layers

  • Start with a 4″ layer of small brush, twigs and straw. This will improve air supply at the base.
  • Then add a 4″ layer of browns.
  • Follow with a 1″ layer of greens.

Spread on top a couple of shovels of good soil to introduce a microbe population.

A little good soil will introduce microbes to the mix

Continue alternating the layers of browns and greens in the 4:1 ratio, with a sprinkling of good garden soil, until you have at least a couple of feet. Three feet high is a good goal, but smaller is acceptable. It has to have a critical mass to build up the heat.

Tender Loving Care

Air and Moisture
Microbes also need a balance of air and moisture. If there’s no rain for several weeks don’t forget to water the pile – a dry pile will not decompose. But an excessively wet pile will lack air. Turn the compost every 3 or 4 weeks to increase the air supply, redistribute the materials and moisture and speed up decomposition. This also prevents odors!

Kitchen Collection

Some folks use a counter-top container to collect scraps and coffee grounds (coffee filters can go in too). Some prefer to collect scraps in a large bowl during meal prep and then take them out when the cooking is done. Most importantly, show your children what can be composted and where to put their banana peels, apple cores, etc.

Do Not Use…

Meat, fish, oil, dairy, and cooked foods should not be added to your outdoor compost. These can be decomposed successfully in a worm bin (“vermiculture”), which s a great complement to outdoor composting and will be discussed in another post! Pet (or human!) feces, paper, invasive weeds, diseased and chemically treated plants, and BBQ ash should also be kept out of your compost bin.

Hot and cold

Children will be fascinated by the fact that there’s heat in the compost pile on a chilly day, just because of the work of all those little micro-organisms. The heat helps the whole process by killing off undesirables like weed seeds and some disease organisms. “Cold” composting takes place naturally in a pile of leaves – you’ll find compost at the bottom after six to twelve months. Some use this method intentionally, by simply bagging up their leaves in plastic and just leaving them. Due to the low air and nitrogen levels, the microbe level doesn’t build up enough to create the heat of a compost pile and it’s a slower process.

Save fall leaves ("browns") for mixing with "green" compost in summer

If you shred materials before adding them and turn it regularly, your compost will be ready for use in 2 – 4 months. If you have just one pile that you add to continuously, there will of course still be intact items, and the finished compost will be towards the bottom. It will be chocolatey brown, crumbly, and have an earthy smell. Congratulations!

Related Posts

A Garden Plan for Food and Wildlife

Useful Links

Composting Basics by the Garden of Oz: a great introduction to composting

Compost-Info-Guide.Com: lots of detailed information

NC State University Extension Compost Guide: tips, background and some construction plans

BackyardGardener.com Compost Site: Helpful background info, tips, links and lots of compost bin designs and instructions

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