The Do's and Don'ts of Composting
Leaves, grass clippings, and other yard debris make up 20 percent of the trash sent to Texas landfills each year. It costs Texans more than $250 million a year to collect and dispose of this waste. Many of these yard materials can be composted instead. Additionally, many food items that regularly get thrown in the trash can also be composted!
Compost is the controlled decomposition of organic matter through biological processes, with the end result being a nutrient-rich humus. Composting involves the putting together of a mixture of vegetable residue, animal matter, soil, and water to form humus. Compost can serve as a soil conditioner that nourishes your yard. It also reduces the need for watering by up to 60 percent!
Getting Your Pile Started
First, you will need to select a dry, shady spot near a water source for your compost pile or bin. Once you've found a good location, you can begin adding brown and green materials as they are collected. Be sure to chop or shred any larger pieces and moisten any dry materials as they are added. Once your pile is established, begin mixing grass clippings and green waste into the pile and bury fruit and vegetable waste under ten inches of compost material. When the material at the bottom of the pile is dark and rich in color, your compost is ready to use. This process can take anywhere from two months to two years.
Composting only requires three basic ingredients:
- Browns: Materials like dead leaves, branches, and twigs.
- Greens: Materials such as grass clippings, vegetable waste, fruit scraps, and coffee grounds.
Composting works best when the pile contains equal amounts (by weight) of green and brown materials. The brown materials provide carbon for your compost, the green materials provide nitrogen, and the water provides moisture to help break down the organic matter. Using a variety of different organic materials makes the best compost.
Good Choices for Composting
- Food Scraps: Fruits and vegetables, egg shells, coffee grounds, tea bags, and nut shells.
- Paper Products: Shredded newspaper, cardboard, and paper.
- Yard Waste: Yard trimmings, grass clippings, houseplants, and leaves.
- Wood: Sawdust and wood chips.
- Dryer or vacuum cleaner lint, hair, and fur can also be composted.
- Avoid dairy products, eggs, meat, fish, bones, fats, grease, lard, and oils. These leftover food items create odor problems and attract pests like rodents and flies.
- Don't compost pet droppings or soiled cat litter. They can contain diseases and viruses that are harmful to humans.
- Yard trimmings that have been treated with chemical pesticides should not be composted. The pesticides may kill beneficial composting organisms.
- Never compost diseased or insect-infected plants. The diseases and pests can survive in the compost and spread to other plants.
- Coal or charcoal ash should not be composted, as it can release substances that are harmful to plants.
Download this infographic to learn what to put in your compost bin and what to avoid.
Turning Your Pile
It is important to regularly turn your pile. Turning helps to add more oxygen, distribute moisture evenly, and increase the temperature enough to kill weed seeds. During the summer, you should turn your pile on a weekly basis. In the winter, once a month is sufficient. Use a hayfork or a compost turner to break up clumps and move drier material to the center of the pile.
Using Your Compost
Using compost before it is ready can damage your plants. Also, undecayed materials can harbor pests and diseases and introduce weed seeds or damaging acids.
Compost is ready when:
- it smells earthy;
- it no longer heats up after it is turned or dampened;
- it has a crumbly texture;
- it looks like dark soil;
- it has a pH near neutral.
Once your compost is ready, you can use it as mulch or topdressing or you can mix it into the soil.
More Composting Information
Learn more about starting and maintaining your own compost pile by watching How to Start Composting in Your Own Backyard.
Download the Take Care of Texas Guide to Mulching and Composting.