Composting 101

Composting upgrades garden soil, keeps plants healthy, and can even lessen planet-unfriendly greenhouse gases. Here’s how to do it.

  • Ashley Tate and Sharon Tanenbaum

It’s not just for people in the sticks anymore: Composting is great for all gardeners because it improves soil, which in turn prevents plant diseases. And it can even reduce harmful greenhouse gases. “Organics that break down in a landfill produce methane gas, which is about 120 times more harmful than carbon dioxide,” says Cary Oshins, assistant director for programs at the United States Composting Council, in Ronkonkoma, New York. So why not help the planet and your yard by piling it on?

 

How to Get Started

Choose a container that’s made of wood (or some other sturdy material) and no smaller than three by three feet. Place it in your yard in a shady spot with good drainage. Start adding waste in a ratio of three “browns” to one “green.” Browns are carbon-rich materials and include wood chips, straw, branches, and leaves. Greens provide nitrogen and include grass clippings and kitchen scraps, like eggshells and carrot tops. When you’re adding new material, Oshins suggests, dig a hole in the pile and stir the new stuff in so it gets coated with the old mixture.

 

How to Maintain the Pile

Composting is a smelly process. You’re breaking down food and yard waste, after all. But it shouldn’t be so offensive that the neighbors complain. If you notice a stench, make sure you have enough browns in the pile. (Ask a tree service or a landscaper for extra wood chips or brush.) Also check the moisture level by grabbing a handful of the heap. It should be at about 50 to 60 percent, meaning the compost feels like a wrung-out sponge. If it’s too dry, let rain even out the moisture. If it’s too wet, add a few more browns.

 

How to Tell if the Compost Is Ready

When it’s ready for use, which could take anywhere from a few months to a year, compost looks and smells like very dark soil. If you’re unsure, put it to the Baggie test: Place a small amount in a plastic bag and take a whiff before sealing. Then place the bag in a drawer for a few days. When you open the bag, the sample should smell the same as it did before. If it smells worse, your compost needs more time in the pile.

 

Related: The Black Thumb Guide to Gardening