Is Composting Worth the Time and Money?

It’s early autumn and you’ve invited all your friends over for a last hurrah outdoors to enjoy the crisp fall weather. Everyone arrives with food in hand, and your biodegradable bamboo plates and utensils promise to serve as one of many conversation starters.

Everyone is in awe of your beautiful garden. Your flowers are exploding with color as they enjoy their last blast before winter. Yellow, white, red, blue, purple…the assortment of flowers mix together to form your own personal Jackson Pollack painting. No one knows it, but the secret to your success is discreetly tucked away between a couple of large bushes.

With all the leaves and fall trimming ahead, now is a great time to start a compost bin. Outdoor composting is definitely worth the effort because there really isn’t much work or start-up cost involved. You can easily create a compost bin with wooden pallets or scrap lumber. And the maintenance cost is zippo!

Composting has a variety of uses depending on your needs. Maybe you are a gardener constantly trying to deepen the color of your green thumb, so you need plenty of organic fertilizer. Or maybe you have a green consciousness and want to reduce your landfill waste and carbon footprint. Or maybe you just want to save some green and know that you’ll be able to fertilize your garden or indoor plants for free.

There are many reasons to compost, and though they are hard to quantify in terms of saved dollars or reduced carbon output, you can be sure that the effort and money involved will end up saving you cash and helping the environment in the long run.

The first task is to build or buy a compost bin, which come in all sorts of inexpensive recycled rubber compost forms. Some municipalities even give them away for free. I was able to pick up two nice 4-5′ circular bins at no cost. Every garden store carries several types of bins, from simple ones to expensive rotating containers for optimum composting that cost a few hundred dollars.

Size does matter when it comes to composting, and you’ll want your container or heap to be between 3x3x3 and 5x5x5. If you go too small, you won’t allow an even amount of space for oxygen to flow through the plant matter, which helps it decompose. Best to err on the larger size because you’ll be amazed at how quickly the heap builds up and then shrinks down. I ended up graduating to a second bin after about a year.

If I were making a new compost bin, I’d look in my garage for some pieces of wood or anything to serve as the walls of the structure. The key is to keep the compost well aerated, as this speeds up the decomposing. Check out your garden center, too, because they may have broken pallets you can buy for a couple of dollars or even get free with a purchase. When I worked at a garden center in high school, we always had a stack of pallets in the back, which only served as an eyesore. Many avid gardeners would take them away for free. It’s a win-win situation.

Once you build your container, it’s time to fill the compost. Composting is about aeration and balance. The two main ingredients of all composts are nitrogen and carbon. Nitrogen, or “green” waste items, range anywhere from food scraps to grass clippings. Carbon, or “brown” waste, includes items like dead leaves, newspapers and woodchips. Technically, you want one part green items to 25 parts brown. However, all of these guidelines are for optimizing your compost. It’s pretty easy to just throw in a bunch of waste products and let it do its thing.

There are many ways to reduce your carbon footprint by composting. Some general guidelines and tips for composting:

  1. Keep compost aerated. Aeration helps promote the growth of fungi and bacteria, which breaks down waste and creates the rich fertilizer known as humus.
  2. Keep compost moist and prevent it from drying out.
  3. Alternate layers of “green” and “brown” materials to start, and try mixing up the compost every so often.
  4. Keep in direct sunlight. Heat promotes the growth of the bacteria and fungi that will break down the waste products.
  5. Avoid waste from animals, meats, cooked food, fats and oils. You want to avoid these waste products because if you use your compost as fertilizer in your vegetable garden, you could run into problems. Waste can harbor diseases that survive in the fertilizer and ultimately end up in the produce it helps to grow. This is one reason why human waste is not used as a fertilizer. In addition, these products will attract animals and create an unpleasant odor.
  6. You have two options in winter. You can leave your compost alone, and it will basically hibernate for the winter like a grizzly bear. In the spring, it will awaken again and continue to break down all the waste you added over the winter months. Or you can move the compost into a black bin, or try insulating it. If it’s left in direct sunlight, it will continue to compost at a much slower rate all winter.

It takes about an hour or so to create an outdoor compost. Take your time setting it up because if it is done right, you won’t have to do anything except add materials and aerate occasionally. After as little as two to four months, you will start seeing rich, dark humus at the bottom of the pile.

Get ready to be the envy of your fellow gardening friends and neighbors. Your next year’s garden will overwhelm them with beautiful colors and scents, and will cost you a lot less to achieve.

John-R-Garnett-Picture1-150x150Be sure to visit the Green Blizzard Store for recommended green books and products. Here are some other Green Blizzard articles on organic gardening: Houseplants Purify Your Air, Plant Trees to Offset Your Carbon Footprint, Local Produce, Dirty Dozen App, Green Cleaning Products, Whole Foods App

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About the author

John R. Garnet

John's work in the energy market fostered his interest in the environment. He recently completed his graduate work at George Mason University, But more interestingly, John has a passion for food and cooking and to provides some light-hearted tips to make people's lives greener while enjoy the good life with everyday practical tips from brewing tea, growing basil, or drinking raw milk.