Composting involves organisms called decomposers that include bacteria and fungi to break down organics into smaller pieces. The result becomes a rich humus containing moisture, nutrients and minerals for soil. By including “wet greens’’ from your kitchen to provide nitrogen along with a handful of “dry browns’’ from your yard to add the carbon, you will create a well-functioning compost heap.
If you have recently joined the green revolution and live in an area where a chill has nipped thenight air, you may be thinking that you won’t be composting much longer. It is just as easy, however, to compost throughout the winter. During this time of year, the compost cycle slows down and your composter may have filled to the top already. Before the frost takes hold, wiggle the composter free and lift it off the heap. Kick over the standing compost and add lots of leaves. Top the mound with more leaves, and cover with a dark sheet to trap the sun’s heat. Weigh it down with stones.
Now, you are ready to start composting again with your empty unit. Place it beside the covered heap or move it to a different location. Add a base layer of brush or dry leaves in order to provide air flow. Before the ground becomes covered in snow, save some bags of fallen leaves to alternate with your food scraps. If you wish, line the inside of your composter with large cardboard pieces to act as insulation. As before, begin to layer the wet greens from your kitchen with dry browns. If you have an insufficient supply of leaves on hand, use sawdust from untreated wood, straw, crumpled brown paper or shredded cardboard to provide the necessary carbon.
As well as composting your kitchen food scraps, include any unwanted beverages and water from rinsing pots used for cooking rice or oatmeal, etc. In addition, you can toss in pet fur, hair, feathers, floor sweepings, wilted flowers, household plants, cooled wood ashes (I emphasize cooled ashes), dryer lint, bits of string, wool or cotton. The rule of thumb is “If it was once alive, it can be composted.” Do not add meat, fats, bones or dairy products, as these do not decompose quickly and may cause an odor.
Due to the cold weather’s slowing the composting cycle, your composter will fill up rather quickly. As spring approaches, slivers of ice will begin to break down organic pieces. When the cycle begins to heat up, you will see the heap’s volume decrease substantially, allowing you to compost until the following autumn.
When you tend to your garden in the spring, most of your covered heap will be ready to use. The compost should be dark and crumbly, and most of the original materials will be unrecognizable. If you find pieces of corn husks or nutshells that have not fully decomposed, just pitch them into your working composter.
Today, many communities have provided residents with “green bins’’ to collect organics that also accept meat, fats and dairy products — convenient, no doubt, for those with little or no yard space. If you have a sufficient outdoor area, it’s easier to backyard compost your vegetable and fruit peelings rather than have them transported to a central composting facility. Composting is the natural way for discarded food, yard trimmings and other organic matter to regenerate the soil.