By Wilda Dickey, Master Gardener
Composting can reduce the quantity of material in our waste stream while producing a valuable soil amendment. The National Composting Council estimates that the average U.S. household generates 650 pounds of compostables every year. Sources indicate that yard waste amounts to nearly 230 pounds per person per year, and food waste accounts for an additional 100 pounds per person. It also saves money, because garbage collections are a large expense for the communities.
Composting is a natural process. Organic materials such as leaves, grass and vegetable scraps are broken down by microorganisms, forming a rich soil-like substance called compost. Practically any plant material can be composted for garden use – sod and grass clippings if they have not been treated chemically, hay, straw, weeds (without seed or disease), chopped cornstalks or cobs, sawdust (not treated wood), shredded newspaper and cardboard, wood ashes, hedge clippings, and many kinds of vegetable scraps from the kitchen.
Choose a location that is fairly level, near where you will use the compost and near a water source, and a safe distance from wells to avoid contaminating your drinking water. So, if you have a 3-by-3-foot by three foot area, preferably by your garden, you can start a compost pile today. Efficient composting requires air, moisture and the proper mix of materials, browns and greens. Green materials include fresh grass and other untreated garden clippings, weeds (none with seeds), manure and kitchen vegetable scraps. Brown materials include fallen leaves, straw, wood chips, dead plant material, paper and cardboard.
Start the pile on the ground with a 4- to 6- inch layer of browns. Water well.
Sprinkle in a 2-inch layer of greens. Water well.
Add a hand full of soil or finished compost to boost the number of microbes.
Mix the two layers together with a spading fork or shovel.
Continue to add layers of browns and greens, maintaining the ratio of brown to greens at 2:1.
Make sure you mix each new set of layers together.
Periodically squeeze a handful of the mixture to check the water content. If several drops of water are produced, the material is wet enough. Add water or additional dry material to achieve the proper moisture content in the pile.
Compost is produced in eight to 10 weeks in spring and summer, longer during fall and winter with frequent turning, and longer if turning is less often.
You can contact the Extension office with gardening questions, 724.627.3745. If you are interested in becoming a Master Gardener, you can also contact Greene County Penn State Extension Office.