Did your grandmother set aside egg shells and coffee grounds on the kitchen counter following a big breakfast? If you never asked her why, your grandmother and many others in her generation were composting, just like more and more people are doing today.
Composting at home is economical and environmentally friendly. Compost is organic material that can be added to soil to help plants grow. Food scraps and yard waste make up more than 28% of what we throw away, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Instead of taking up space in a landfill and producing methane, a potent greenhouse gas, this waste could be composted and used to enrich soil in flower and vegetable gardens.
There are three basic categories of ingredients needed to create compost: brown matter, greens and water. Brown matter is dead leaves, branches and twigs. Greens include grass clippings, vegetable waste, fruit scraps and coffee grounds. The right amount of moisture is crucial for the breakdown of organic matter. Too little and the composting process slows down. Too much can produce bad odors and also slow down decomposition. Your compost pile should feel like a wrung-out sponge. Ideally, the compost pile should have an equal amount of browns to greens, and alternate layers of organic materials. Cardboard or newspapers can be used for layering the pile as well.
A compost pile can be built in a shady corner of the backyard or mixed in a tumbler purchased at a local garden center. Candace Scheuermann, garden center manager at Green View, 3000 W. Jefferson St., has a rule of thumb when it comes to composting: you get back what you put in. In other words, use quality ingredients, not decaying plant matter, meat or animal products that can become rancid, drawing pests and animals. The objective is to encourage earthworms or beetles to the pile so they will digest brown and green material, turning it into compost.
She does not recommend putting big sticks or branches in the compost pile because they take a long time to break down. Aerate the compost pile by turning it over with a pitch fork, or rotating the tumbler, at least once a week during warm weather, and once every three to four weeks during colder months. This introduces oxygen to the compost, which increases decomposition.
Each spring, Mark Moscardelli, landscape manager and designer at Pleasant Nursery, 4234 W. Wabash Ave., makes mulch by cutting back perennials and mulching the clippings with a mower. These fine clippings break down quickly once spread over a vegetable or flower garden. This provides beneficial nitrogen and microorganisms to the soil and can be used in place of wood mulch. Moscardelli said that although wood mulches look nice, they don't provide much benefit for the plant, especially when there are layers upon layers. The layers can actually cause the mulch to become hard like wood over the plant's roots, depriving it of oxygen. If this is the case in your garden, he advises removing the mulch with a shovel and working compost into the soil about 2-3 inches deep. This will allow the soil to aerate and be ready to produce beautiful perennials next year.
Gardening has seen a resurgence in popularity since the COVID-19 pandemic has required us to stay home and find ways to keep busy. Practically speaking, growing our own produce has been a necessity for some. Naturally, composting is a companion project that is simple and can also serve as a science lesson for kids learning remotely.
Holly Whisler is a freelance writer from Springfield who enjoys working in her yard.