Many homeowners know they can recycle their aluminum cans and glass bottles, but did you know that it’s possible to recycle food scraps and even coffee grounds? Everyday waste that usually ends up in the trash can be used to create a compost pile. This type of recycling may not involve the standard blue bins, but it can reduce and reuse an estimated 20 to 30 percent of your household’s waste as well as benefit your garden.

What Is a Compost Pile?

Composting is a process that speeds up the natural decay of organic material. A compost pile blends the right proportions of nitrogen-rich material, carbon-rich matter, oxygen, and water in order to hasten decomposition. In the end, a compost pile becomes mulch that can be used to fertilize soil for plants; this dark-colored, nutrient-rich, high-quality output—called humus—is sometimes referred to as “black gold.”

Here are the basic elements of a compost pile:

  • Browns. Carbon materials should make up about two-thirds of the pile. Examples include straw, shredded newspaper, and dead leaves, flowers, and branches. It’s best to chop or shred these items before adding to the pile in order to speed composting.

  • Greens. These materials are sources of nitrogen and include items like grass clippings, vegetable and fruit waste, and coffee grounds. These should be about one-third of the pile. Avoid adding dairy and meat discards; they can create foul odors and attract pests.

  • Water. Keep the pile damp, but not soggy. Too much or too little water can be problematic for composting.

  • Air. The pile should remain well ventilated, which is best achieved through regular mixing.

How Do You Make a Compost Pile?

Two keys to composting involve setup and upkeep—it’s important to build the pile well and monitor it regularly.

Setup. First, you need to decide on a location. The area should be at least nine square feet. A good place is in a warm, dry area out of direct sunlight and in reach of a hose. It’s also a good idea to be mindful of your neighbors when choosing a spot.

You can create a freestanding compost pile, or you can use a bin that’s homemade or store bought. Some homeowners choose to use bins to keep the pile neater, but composting is possible without one.

Once you select your location, it’s time to gather materials and create the pile. There are many different ways to create a pile, so do your research and pick the way that works best for you. One method is to thinly layer brown material first, green material second, and then another layer of brown. You then want to lightly water the layers, repeating the process until the pile is at least three feet high. This technique ensures that browns and greens are added in the correct proportions. However, when the pile is at the desired height, it’s important to mix the pile thoroughly. Some homeowners choose to cover the pile with a tarp to better regulate moisture; the tarp keeps the pile from drying out and protects it from rain.

Upkeep. Frequent mixing of the pile allows the necessary oxygen to contribute to decomposition. It also distributes moisture evenly and prevents foul odors. It’s best to turn the pile with a large tool like a pitchfork or shovel at least once every one to two weeks, or even more frequently to speed composting. A pile is composting properly when heat is generated at its center, which can be indicated by steam rising from the pile while you’re mixing it. The pile is done composting when it no longer heats up and when it looks like rich soil instead of the original ingredients.

Composting varies in length, from two weeks to one year, depending on human involvement in the process. For example, if a homeowner turns the pile weekly, it usually takes one to two months to compost. In comparison, leaf waste typically takes two years to decompose naturally.

What Are the Benefits of a Compost Pile?

Composting helps soil to retain moisture, increase nutrients, and avoid pests and diseases. When you strike “black gold,” you will not only be able to regenerate your soil without using chemical fertilizers, but you can also take pride in the fact that you’ve done your part to shrink your carbon footprint as well as reduce methane emission in landfills.

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Sources: Cornell Waste Management Institute; EPA; Organic Gardening; Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

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