How to get started composting in your own backyard

Do a ‘green’ activity with your kids this spring



The concept of composting is as old as the earth itself. Prehistoric farmers mixed crop waste, animal manure and hay and discovered the result was a useful, fertile soil they could use to help their crops thrive.

Compost, the end product of a controlled decomposition of plant and animal wastes, makes an excellent addition to lawn or garden soil. Adding compost to your soil helps improve its drainage and water-holding properties, according to University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension’s Web site.

Compost stores plant nutrients and prevents them from leaching. It “opens up” the soil so plant roots can penetrate easily. Some recent research indicates that compost can help prevent many common plant diseases.

In recent times, the demand on the farming industry for immense quantities of produce has forced farmers to use synthesized fertilizer, and home gardeners have followed suit. Although easy to obtain and readily available, synthetic fertilizer is not necessarily good for the earth.

The mass production of chemical fertilizers strains the environment, contributes to global warming and requires enormous amounts of resources, according to Eva Christensen, owner of Earthtenders in Farmington. It is expensive, too, and for all these reasons and more, backyard composting is becoming an attractive family activity.

“When we compost, we can take pride in the fact that we are directly contributing to lowering greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” Christensen said.

This all sounds great, but just how complicated would it be to start up a backyard compost project? The answer is, not very. A little research is all that is required to begin this worthwhile, educational family mission.

Teach the philosophy and benefits

Involve the children from the beginning. Before doing any kind of information gathering, Christensen suggests deciding on the most important reason why the family has decided to try backyard composting. Perhaps it may be a desire to teach accountability and the value of “cleaning up after oneself” on a grander scale.

Composting may be a way for the family to live greener and contribute to the health of the earth. It may also be a nifty science project that demonstrates the concepts of biological decomposition. Or the reason may be purely financial. Whatever the reasons, it is important to discuss them with the children so they understand the meaning and commitment of the project, and that it is not just something to do in the backyard that will eventually be neglected or forgotten.

Do the research

Once everyone is on board with the family composting philosophy, Christensen emphasizes the importance of doing the research.

“It is really important to do your homework before getting started. You really can’t just wing it,” Christensen said.

Kids will love this step and want to help. There are a multitude of written materials and pictures readily available on the Internet or at the local library. One may also consider enrolling the family in a composting class.

You can also get additional information from University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension at http://extension.unh.edu.

What you need to know about composting at home

Ingredients

The keys to successful backyard composting are the mix of ingredients and the natural elements needed for proper decomposition.

A compost pile requires a mix of carbon materials (anything brown such as leaves, dead plants, straw, paper, twigs, pine needles, untreated wood dust) and items containing nitrogen(anything green including fresh grass clippings, weeds, clover, pond algae and non-meat kitchen scraps). Children will delight in bringing out the kitchen scraps to the compost pile, and they will be helping with the daily clean up as well—maybe without even realizing it.

The mix should also contain a source of organisms that will help decompose the waste materials. These might include old compost, soil, cow, chicken or horse manure, or commercially available composting starters.

Containers

In addition to the materials that comprise the compost heap, efficient decomposition requires air and moisture.

To provide air and moisture, composts should be kept in an appropriate container and stirred and watered occasionally. Compost containers can be purchased or constructed very easily.

One of the most popular do-it-yourself bins is made of a plastic garbage barrel with small holes poked through it for air. One can also build a bin out of chicken wire, old fencing, or wood palettes.

Pests

Pests such as mice, flies and ants can be kept to a minimum if the compost mixture is in its proper ratio of ingredients, and if certain aromatic wastes are kept out of it. Avoid putting the following items in the compost pile: diseased plants or leaves, persistent weeds or plants that have gone to seed, human or pet feces, meat, dairy or kitchen foods cooked in animal fat. For larger pests such as raccoons or bears that may be on the prowl for a snack, Christensen suggests anchoring the compost bin to the ground.

Using the compost

If all goes well, the family should have a nice, dark, nutrient-rich compost pile available for use within one year. Divide the bin or create two piles that can be alternated, recommends Christensen.

“Start one pile in March and then another six months later. By the following spring, your first one should be ready for use,” she said.

Compost can be used as a mulching material around trees and bushes, and can also be worked into the soil of a garden or new lawn. Christensen pointed out another advantage of using compost soil: you won’t have to water as often.

Reducing waste

Composting is an outdoor project kids will benefit from and enjoy. It teaches them about their environment, and about science. It will be an eco-friendly and potentially spiritual bonding experience for the entire family.

“Our landfills are loading up quickly,” said Christensen. Organic waste sits buried under the ground in landfills, receives virtually no oxygen, and as a result takes a longer time to decompose. This means more greenhouse gases in the air. There are consequences to tossing that half-eaten loaf of bread into the garbage can. Once a family starts composting, parents and children may quickly see how much is squandered each day.”

Christensen said she hopes this discovery will be all the encouragement that is required to significantly reduce waste—one family at a time.

Purchasing compost

Although most gardeners can produce their own compost from kitchen scraps and yard and garden wastes, making enough compost is a tough job for gardeners with thin or poor topsoil.

Legislation that went into effect in 1993 made it illegal for New Hampshire municipalities to incinerate or landfill leaf and yard wastes. Some municipalities currently collect and compost these wastes at town solid waste facilities, offering the compost free to residents; check to see if your town is among them.

The legislation also created opportunities for commercial composting operations to take in leaves and other organic waste products and process them into compost for sale.

For more information, go to http://extension.unh.edu/

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