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Composting: ultimate way to recycle

by Pamela A. Keene

Compost in handsStop: Don’t toss out those nonmeat kitchen scraps. By following the right techniques and combination of ingredients, you can have some of the best and least-expensive garden soil amendments.

“The secret to successful gardening is the quality of the soil you plant in, and when you amend your soil with compost, you’re improving your chances for a more productive garden,” says Joe Lamp’l, founder of He also produces podcasts that air on and is a sought-after speaker at regional and national gardening symposiums and workshops.

“Commercial soil amendments and organic material can be expensive, but when you can make your own out of kitchen scraps, grass clippings and leaves, everyone wins. It’s really not that hard, and you can have fun in the process.”

Without getting too technical, compost is made from biodegraded organic matter. In the right proportions and conditions, bacteria, fungi, protozoa, earthworms and arthropods (such as beetles and springtails) break down the materials. There are four basic ingredients to make compost: carbon (brown waste), nitrogen (green waste), air and water.

“You don’t need any fancy equipment or tools to start a compost heap,” he says. “Just select an out-of-the-way spot – behind some shrubs or a far corner of your yard – and you can just begin putting the ingredients into a pile. Find an easy-to-access place with water nearby and you’re all set.”

If you want to contain the pile, build a three-sided wire cage, or tie three wooden pallets together with coat hangers. You can also order closed composting systems online or from garden centers. Your batches will be smaller than using an open bin, but the results will be faster.

“Start with woody materials, branches or sticks that will aid in ventilation, then layer brown, then green materials, using a formula of roughly two-thirds brown and one-third green,” Lamp’l says.

Examples of green materials, which have a higher nitrogen content, include fresh grass clippings, pulled weeds and nonmeat, nonfat kitchen scraps such as vegetable and fruit peelings and cores, coffee grounds and used tea leaves. Brown ingredients, those that furnish carbon that’s important to the decomposition process, include dried leaves, shredded cardboard or paper, small wood chips and dried grass clippings. You can add a shovelful of garden soil or a handful of fertilizer such as 10-10-10 or Milorganite slow-acting fertilizer to speed up the process a bit.

“Several other things that come into play when making compost include moisture, regular aeration and making sure the ingredients you add are not too big,” Lamp’l says. “As the pile decomposes, it creates heat that further breaks down the ingredients.”

A garden thermometer is a good investment for helping you maintain the temperature at around 130 degrees. And some gardeners periodically cover the pile for a couple of weeks with black plastic garbage bags that will hold in heat. Remove the bags long enough to aerate weekly.

You should periodically spray the pile with a garden hose to keep it moist, but be careful not to overwater. The moisture consistency of a damp sponge is a good gauge.

Composting can take two months to a year or more, depending on the ratio of brown to green ingredients, how often the pile is turned or aerated, how much heat is generated during the process, the size of the pile and other conditions.

Adding compost to your garden will increase the level of nutrients and improve the texture of the soil.

“Once you’re started composting, using it in your garden and as topdressing for your landscape, you’ll never go back,” he says. “It’s one of the best ways to truly recycle and save money at the same time. And your gardening successes will improve.”

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Journalist Pamela A. Keene writes for more than a dozen publications across the country, specializing in travel, lifestyle, features and gardening. Based in Atlanta, she is a photographer and an avid life-long gardener. Article/photos courtesy of The Tennessee Magazine and Statewide Editors Association (SEA); SEA is a nationwide network of consumer-owned electric cooperative statewide magazines.