You don’t need a big yard to start composting
By Alex Parker
Like many American families, my family struggles with food waste. From neglected produce to avocados that roll to the back of the fridge, it seems a lot of what we buy at the grocery store doesn’t end up on our plates at all.
I wanted to put those poor, uneaten items and other food scraps to use, so I got a compost tumbler and vowed to make magic with our family’s ever-present supply of food waste. No doubt, I thought, my little suburban garden would soon be thriving. Imagine, I thought, the soil, alive with microbes, reducing greenhouse gases, pulling carbon from the air – all from our food waste!
Then reality hit: My good intentions turned to muck, a stinky slurry that resembled rotting food and leaves.
At its most basic level, composting is combining organic materials, like food and yard waste, and allowing microbes to break them down into a soil additive full of nutrients.
When you turn your food and yard waste into compost, you help make soil healthier, decrease water erosion, reduce landfill waste and also reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the decay of carbon- and nitrogen-rich organic material, which when rotting in a landfill emit methane. It’s also one of Project Drawdown’s top ways to combat climate change.
But, it turns out, you don’t just dump food scraps and some leaves in the tumbler. That’ll leave you with the aforementioned pile of stinky muck. No, there’s some strategy and planning required, says Duane Friend, a University of Illinois Extension educator.
“What you’re wanting to do is provide something for those microbes to work on. They’re mainly looking for a source of carbon and a source of nitrogen,” he says. In the composting process, the microbes that exist all over the place feast on a combination of nitrogen-rich organic material, like vegetables, fruits, fresh garden clippings and even cow or rabbit manure, and carbon-heavy materials (aka browns), like dead leaves, wood chips, yellowed grass clippings and even newspaper.
There are several ways to get started composting, no matter where you live. In areas with a bit more space, compost tumblers or bins and compost piles are possible, while apartment dwellers can use a concept called vermicomposting, which uses worms to break down organic waste.
While outdoor composting, particularly “hot composting,” in which organic materials are combined and periodically tossed, can start at any time, Friend says the most effective composting begins in the spring.
“If you’ve got the right blend of material, you can start at any time, depending on the availability of materials,” he says. “If you’re really wanting a high-end compost, you’re looking at starting in late spring and running into summertime.”
Friend says it’s important to layer the browns and greens to create a fertile mixture, and he suggests a 25-1 ratio between carbon and nitrogen. In other words, lots of leaves and newspapers and fewer food scraps.
And, he warns, don’t ever include meat, bones or dairy products. Not only will this disrupt the decomposition process, it attracts vermin – and it stinks.
After several months, you should have a damp, earthy smelling mixture that resembles soil. You can then combine it with your garden soil to create a microbe-rich additive that will make your soil healthy and help sequester carbon from the air.
“You should not be able to recognize any material in there,” Friend says.
Visit the Illinois Food Scraps Coalition for tips and information on composting.
Stay tuned for Part II: Composting in apartments
To learn more:
Seven Generations Ahead — Chapter member Amy Bartucci works there so you can find her on our Slack channel.
How to Get Your Community Composting in Illinois — Learn from a panel of experts about raising awareness of municipal composting and the value of civic engagement on Sept. 29 at 12-1:30 p.m.
Alex Parker, of La Grange, was trained as a Climate Reality Leader in Minneapolis in 2019. He’s the proud owner of a new battery-powered electric lawn mower for which his neighbors are grateful!