Composting: The Ultimate In Recycling

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Creating a compost heap, which is comprised of decomposed, well-rotted organic material, to fertilize the garden is the ultimate in recycling. And it is as simple as taking out the trash.

“People throw their leaves and their grass clippings and their eggshells and their corn husks into a pile and let the sun bake on it,” Water Mill Building Supply sales associate Craig Messier said last week from behind the counter. “Throw a little bit of water on it and, when it starts to smell, you’ve got to start turning it.”

He laughed, and coworker Lutha Miller added, “It’s good for the plants you put it on. And you’re not throwing the garbage in plastic bags, either.”

“So it’s going to save on landfill waste by making your own compost,” Mr. Messier said. “It’s not winding up in the dumps. It’s going to be spread across your azaleas and petunias. You might as well utilize your waste.”

Starting a compost pile—known in gardening circles as “black gold”—is dependent on collecting the right ingredients that can eventually mix into the soil of flower, herb and vegetable gardens. Any material that was once a plant—from asparagus to dried leaves—can be composted. But the trick to any successful batch of compost is alternating layers of brown waste, which is high in carbon, and green, nitrogen-loaded ingredients.

Brown plant materials include leaves, old grass clippings, shredded paper, peat moss, and hay and straw. Green materials include fresh grass clippings; vegetable kitchen waste, including coffee grounds and eggshells; yard waste, such as weeds and small twigs; and cow, horse or chicken manure.

When it comes to creating a compost heap, be sure to avoid meats, dairy products, greasy ingredients, pet droppings, herbicide-treated clippings, perennial and seed-bearing weeds, diseased plants and anything metallic or plastic. Those types of items will not decompose, or they can contaminate the pile.

To get started, find a well-drained patch of land that’s convenient to the kitchen or garden, and decide upon a composting method. One option is a free-standing heap, which is a literal mound often covered by a tarp. Or opt for a composting bin, such as the 115-gallon Super Composter at Water Mill Building Supply, which costs $115, according to Mr. Miller.

“You could also go to your lumber yard and get the old pallets and make a bin yourself,” Mr. Messier said. “It’s cheap because we’re always looking to dispose of pallets and the pallets are free. Put four posts in and nail the pallets to the post and you’ve got a bin. In time, that will rot out and become part of the compost pile, and then you change pallets.”

First, add a 4- to 6-inch-thick layer of brown material on the bottom. Carbon-rich dried grass, peat moss, straw and leaves make for a good base. Shred the ingredients before adding them for faster decomposition and dampen the layer so that it’s moist, not soggy. The added water provides the right environment for microbes to break down the material.

Make a second 2- to 4-inch-thick layer of nitrogen-rich green materials, such as fresh grass clippings or vegetable kitchen scraps. To help jump-start the pile, add an enhancer, such as Espoma Organic Compost Starter for $11 per 4-pound bag, said Country Gardens co-owner Paul Rinaldi during a recent visit to his Bridgehampton store.

“You just sprinkle that on and it starts the process,” he said. “You just mix it in there like a salad. That’s it. Pretty simple.”

There is no precise recipe or formula for making compost, other than three parts “brown” to one part “green.” Alternate layers of brown and green material until the pile is 3 to 5 feet high, or the container is full, and moisten each layer before adding the next. When finished, seal with a lid or tarp to protect against the wind and rain and to prevent animals from getting inside.

Throughout the decomposition process, compost should smell pleasant and earthy. An odor is the sign of a problem—too wet, too compacted, wrong materials or needs to be turned.

As the center of the pile heats up, it does not extend through the pile, Mr. Messier said, so the compost must be mixed. Then, be sure to moisten after turning.

“No matter how you’re composting, with a pile or a bin, you’ve got to rotate it around,” Mr. Messier said. “The barrel is easy because, every week, you’d just give it half a turn. With a pile, you’ve got to bring out the pitchfork. And in a month or two’s time, you’ll have some compost good to go.”

Finally, when the compost is dark and crumbly, it’s ready to do its job.

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