Every year, Americans throw away 61.3 million tons of household waste that could have been composted, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Fruit and veggie scraps, crushed eggshells, tea bags, coffee grounds with filters, shredded newspapers, flowers, leaves, grass clippings, and even dryer lint, old wool sweaters, and the fur your dog or cat sheds can all be composted. You simply collect these items in a bin and let airborne microbes break them down into a nutrient-rich soil additive that you can use in your garden. And contrary to what you might expect, a compost pile doesn’t require much attention, and it won’t stink or attract animals. To get started, clear a spot outdoors for your container—the space should be about five square feet, level, and out of direct sunlight (too much sun will overheat and dry out your compost). Then follow these three simple steps:
1. GATHER WASTE. As you collect food scraps indoors, put them in a sealed container or in the freezer (to keep out bugs). When adding these scraps and other household materials to your compost pile, layer green items like vegetable peels with brown items like dead leaves. This creates the balance of carbon and nitrogen that microbes thrive on. Don’t compost dairy products, meat or fish scraps, or cooking oil: They won’t break down properly and will create odors that attract wildlife.
2. CARE FOR YOUR PILE. Microbes will work on your compost heap as long as you keep it well-aerated and damp (this is also what prevents odors), so turn your pile once a week with a pitchfork or compost turner ($20; gaiam.com). If the pile gets dry, moisten it with water once or twice a week. Overwatering can kill the microbes, so don’t saturate your pile, and cover it during heavy rain or snow. If your compost freezes during cold weather, you can continue to add scraps on top of it; just turn the pile thoroughly once it thaws. Don’t be surprised if it gets hot or if you see a few worms in it—these are signs that the microbes are doing their job.
3. USE YOUR COMPOST. After about three to six months, your compost will darken and become uniformly crumbly—and be ready to use. You can add a powdered compost accelerator (available at garden stores) to shorten this time frame by about half (check the label for directions). See “Gardening Tips” (below) for ideas on how to use compost on plants and vegetable gardens and around the yard.
You can use compost, which is rich in nitrogen, phosphorus, and other vital nutrients, to help all your plants grow, bloom, and bear fruit.
FOR POTTED PLANTS: Fill the pot with three parts soil and one part compost, and mix before adding the plant.
FOR OUTDOOR PLANTS AND FLOWERS: Spread compost as you would mulch, placing it between your flower beds, underneath shrubs, and around the bases of trees. It’ll act as a blanket, helping to suppress weeds, keep in moisture, and prevent erosion.
FOR VEGETABLE GARDENS: Distribute a layer of compost (up to one inch thick) over soil just before you till it for planting. It will enhance the soil’s texture and its ability to hold water and air, as well as boost the nutrients in your veggies.
Compost pile via Shutterstock