Composting

Do You Compost? Use These Tips to Get The Most Out of Yours

Compost bin with three sections.

Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist explains the common dos and don’ts of composting

By Devon Johnson

Composting is a great way to use up household food waste as well as boost garden productivity. Unfortunately, many gardeners make composting mistakes that can lead to problems like compost that fails to decompose or attracts rodents. 

Greg Evanylo, Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist and professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences, recommends that home gardeners implement these compost best practices:

  • Make sure the compost pile is big. If space is an issue, decrease the pile surface area by creating a compost bin. The bigger your pile, the more heat it will generate. The average pile size should be a minimum of one cubic yard (0.75 cubic meters).
  • Make sure to turn your pile to get oxygen into it. Without enough oxygen, the microbes will starve, and the pile will go anaerobic. This isn’t good. Turning also ensures that all the waste is being broken down evenly.
  • Make sure to monitor your moisture levels. To do this, perform a squeeze test. Scoop a handful of your compost and squeeze. Does it leak any water? If so, the compost is too wet. When squeezed and no water comes out, but it sticks together, the moisture level is perfect.

“What gardeners are ultimately trying to achieve with composting is the development of a soil amendment that will improve the properties of their soil for gardening,” Evanylo said.

According to Evanylo, compost is useful for improving soil health, boosting beneficial microbial populations, recycling nutrients, and increasing organic matter in the soil.

Composting is also good for the environment. Organic wastes in landfills get converted to methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. When food scraps are recycled into a compost pile, waste is kept out of a landfill.

Compost Dos and Don’ts:

DO

  • Have a 2:1 brown to green ratio. For example, two parts dry leaves (brown) to one part food waste (green).
  • Have an average particle size distribution—some large pieces, some small, but mostly in the middle.
  • Monitor your moisture levels! Water the compost as needed, but not too often or too much—do a squeeze test to check.
  • Bury food waste and keep covered with browns to help avoid insect and rodent problems.

DON’T

  • Compost treated wood or chemicals (paint, pressure treatment, etc.).
  • Inoculate your compost! Microbes exist naturally.
  • Compost meats, dairy, or pet waste.
  • Compost any diseased plants if the pile is less than 130–150 °F (55–65 °C).

Article offered as a news release by the Virginia Cooperative Extension at Virginia State University.

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

3 comments on “Do You Compost? Use These Tips to Get The Most Out of Yours

  1. As a child I read Father “Organic Garden Magazine “, but Father never had a compost pile.
    Instead we pulled weeds and piled them at the end of the row. I n dry weather there was no water or Browns. Crickets loved the heat as a nursery, then the pile dried out & was gone before Spring. We had animals & cleaned out stalls for manure for the garden. I had my first organic garden in 1973.

  2. Randy Evans

    Also, don’t throw out your coffee grounds! Used coffee grounds are about 2% nitrogen and worms love them, too!

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