Everything You Need to Know About Composting

Composting at home has never been easier—and even little ones can get involved in the earth-friendly fun.

Jennifer Grybowski really misses super-fresh, perfectly ripe tomatoes.

That’s why when she and her family purchased a 5-acre property in Newark nearly two years ago, they decided to bring the farmhouse’s garden back to life.

“We wanted our kids to learn how to grow their own produce, to know where food comes from and help reduce our food costs,” says the graphic designer and mom of two. “We’re digging the garden for the first time this year and also plan to grow broccoli, green beans, watermelon, cucumbers, corn, pumpkins and some flowers for our daughter.”

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The Grybowskis’ backyard soil needed tilling before it was ready for gardening, however, so she introduced her family to another activity: Composting.

RELATED: Here’s How to Grow Your Own Vegetable or Herb Garden

“I’ve also always wanted to do a compost at our home,” says Grybowski, who learned about composting as a kid from her grandpa at his upstate New York property.

In the current climate, many other eco-conscious families in Delaware are now turning to composting—adding organic matter to soil to decay—to reduce waste and greenhouse gas emissions, plus create viable soil for gardening and plants.

Gail Hermenau, the master gardener, composter and food educator at University of Delaware’s Cooperative Extension, has been composting at home for over a decade and teaches workshops at the university.

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She says there are multiple levels of composting, making it easy for anyone to do, no matter what type of home they live in.

Whether you have acres of yard or dwell in a city apartment, you can compost.

Compost controls the natural process of decomposition to make it happen more quickly and with more predictable results, Hermenau explains in her workshops.

To make compost, the optimal conditions need to be created to break down organic material: a combination of air, water, carbon and nitrogen.

Air, important for most living things, must be able to move into the pile. Turning your compost pile so new material moves into the center helps improve airflow.

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Microbes also need the right amount of water, as too much moisture reduces airflow, reduces temperature and can make the pile smell, while too little water slows decomposition and prevents the microorganisms from reproducing. Compost should be as moist as a wrung-out sponge.

Compost piles also contain a mix of carbon- and nitrogen-containing ingredients. Microbes that break down organic matter source carbon for energy and need nitrogen for protein synthesis. To decompose efficiently, a compost pile needs the correct ratio (about 30:1) of carbon to nitrogen.

Common items to compost include food scraps like fruit and vegetable peels, eggshells, coffee grounds, grass clippings, leaves, woody material, weeds, straw and hay, paper products and livestock manure. Compost starters, inoculants, activators, soil and finished compost can also be added to piles.

The right type of bin for your family depends on the amount of space you have and how much time you want to dedicate to composting. Hermenau notes a three-bin system she calls the “Cadillac of compost.” Used outside, this method holds compost through different decomposition stages.

Build a traditional pile or use large plastic composters outdoors. Smaller varieties can fit right inside a kitchen cabinet.

Composting has helped the Grybowskis cut their garbage almost in half. They mostly use a big tumbler barrel outside, as well as a smaller bin beneath the kitchen sink.

They also mix a compost starter into their piles to help with the decomposition process.

“It’s easy to spin and doesn’t require a pitchfork or other equipment,” Grybowski says. “The compost turns out well, and we can compost really quickly that way. I’ve started recommending it to family and friends.”

Getting her children, ages 7 and 4, to help out with composting has been a bit of a challenge, she concedes. She’s warming them up to it by explaining why it’s important to compost, and what can and can’t go into the bins.

“I think they’ll have more fun with it once we start using our garden,” she says. “They are excited about that.”

Published as “Waste Not: Composting 101” in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of 302Health magazine.

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