NJ experts offer tips for at-home composting
Yes, we are on board.
Yes, we want to help the environment, save our scraps from the waste stream and give our gardens a nice boost with healthier soil.
Count us in. We want to compost.
So, where do we begin?
Composting is alchemy. You’re taking wilted, slimy expired stuff and magically transforming it into “black gold,” the affectionate gardening term for rich, supple compost. But it’s not rocket science. It’s not difficult at all. Sometimes it’s inadvertent.
If you’ve ever tossed an apple core out of a car window and watched it roll into the woods, you’ve contributed to composting, because that apple will naturally break down and send nutrients back into the soil.
Gardening experts weighed in with their best tips for do-it-yourself composting, offering perspective for experienced gardeners as well as for those who’ve never before given a thought to soil quality or water retention.
Here are their answers to some common questions:
What sort of bin should I use?
Options range from no bin at all—just an open pile in the corner of your garden—to fancy-schmancy plastic or wooden ones with wheels, handles and other features. Municipalities and counties often offer reasonably priced bins to residents, such as square wire bins, which are great for collecting leaves, and Earth Machine bins, plastic domes with a lid on top for adding scraps and a sliding door at the bottom, from which you can scoop out finished compost.
“A beginner should start small,” says Clare Skeen, a Monmouth County Master Composter and organizer of the annual Keyport Garden Walk. “You don’t have to invest a lot of money to start composting. An open pile or homemade composter works just fine. If someone makes their own composter, it should be no larger than 1 cubic yard. That is the ideal size for being able to work the pile and have it decompose quickly.”
Bacteria and other microorganisms break down organic matter aerobically, which is why you need air flowing through your pile. Layering “brown” dry scraps and “green” wet scraps helps air flow. As bacteria break down your scraps, they give off heat, which is why an effective compost pile will steam when you stir it, or even when you lift the lid off your bin on a cold day. Skeen uses a Mantis tumbling double composter, which she bought at a yard sale for $50, because the contents can be easily turned, providing a faster yield.
“Size is important,” agrees Melissa Almendinger, head of the community garden at Duke Farms in Hillsborough, where she also leads educational programs. “A 3-by-3-by-3-foot bin is the smallest pile you should have. Then you’ll have enough to get the heat going. If it’s too small, you won’t get enough heat and it will just kind of melt away.”
“I have a demonstration area for composting with a three-bin system, which is a nice, pretty way for a homeowner to do it,” Almendinger says, “but in a home setting, two is plenty. That way you have one finished bin and one working bin at any given time.”
To collect scraps in your kitchen, any covered pail or bowl will work. “We have a small ceramic compost bucket that sits right on the counter,” Skeen says. “When it is full, we take it out to the composter.”
Where should I put my compost bin?
Ah, that key element: location, location, location. Actually, composting is not like real estate. Location doesn’t matter much.
“The bin should be located where you will be most likely to fill it and use it,” Skeen suggests. “If the composter is on the ground, it should be placed away from tree roots, if possible. Placing it in the sun will mean it will dry out faster, so you need to make sure it is consistently moist, not wet, but similar to a damp sponge.”
What can I put into the bin, and what shouldn’t I add?
Effective composting requires a mix of “green” scraps, which are high in nitrogen, and “brown” scraps, which are high in carbon. Most kitchen and garden scraps are considered green even if they are not green in color: onion peels, coffee grounds, tea leaves, banana and orange peels. Autumn leaves are a homeowner’s most common source of brown scraps.
Keep it vegetarian, except for egg shells, which are fine to add. Do not add meat, bones or oils, even vegetable oils. Plain pasta can be added.
You can toss in your kitchen scraps as they are, or, for faster decomposition, you can chop them.
“Chop them up as small as you can, about ½ inch in diameter,” Skeen advises. “The smaller the scraps, the more quickly they will decompose. Because my composter is a tumbler and off the ground, I always add a small spade of good garden soil, usually what is right below the composter, each time I add scraps to the compost pile to make sure I get those wonderful microorganisms into my tumbler. When I am light on carbon items for the pile, I will put newspaper (soy ink) and thin untreated cardboard through my paper shredder and add it to the compost to help lighten it up a little.”
Newspaper and uncoated cardboard work well as brown scraps if they are ripped or shredded. Soy ink is standard in newspapers. Some gardening experts advise against adding shiny or glossy paper or coated cardboard, because those coatings do not break down as easily and may contain toxic chemicals.
“The combination of those two things—green and brown scraps—is really important and will be what makes composting work,” Almendinger says. “If your compost bin is filled with a soggy mess, that means it’s probably too green.”
“Avoid cat and dog waste, because they carry pathogens that can be harmful to humans,” Almendinger says, “and do not add human waste. We get that question a lot. You can use manure from chickens—it’s high in nitrogen. And bunnies have super mild manure. You can even add that straight to your garden.”
“We avoid putting weeds and weed seeds in,” says Debbie Henry, who runs the children’s garden and educational programs at Rutgers Gardens on the New Brunswick campus. “But crab grass is fine, other lawn clippings like that. Stuff like bind weed, where if you have a little piece of weed in there, it’ll take off, that’s what you should avoid.”
Is it going to smell yucky?
No. It should smell earthy and sweet. Not Twizzler-sweet, more like a plant. Even while food is breaking down, it shouldn’t be stinky. Some scraps, like citrus peels, smell like perfume as they decompose. Finished compost smells rich and fresh.
“If the pile gets smelly, you need to be adding more dry ingredients,” Almendinger says. “You should keep it a one-to-one ratio, by volume. If you add a five-gallon bucket of vegetable scraps, then you should also dump [in] a five-gallon bucket of straw or another brown material.”
Am I going to get rats and roaches and raccoons?
Not if you don’t send them an invitation. Keep fats, oils, meat and bones out of the bin.
“If you leave the food exposed, certainly you’ll have more of an issue,” Almendinger says. “People fear that rats or raccoons will get into the pile, but they don’t bother with it if it’s covered and if only the appropriate scraps are put into it.”
Skeen says, “My backyard has a ton of squirrels—they pay no attention to my compost.”
“It’s not hard to do. Matter wants to break down.
If you are attentive and follow basic rules—
correct ratios, chop before you add, keep it
moist, turn your pile—you will get compost faster
than if you just dump things and wait
for it to break down on its own.”
—Clare Skeen, Monmouth County Master Composter
and organizer of the annual Keyport Garden Walk.
Do I have to water it?
The material in your bin should be about as moist as a wrung-out sponge. Most piles will generate enough moisture from rain and juicy scraps. If yours seems dry, or if you don’t see steam or if it doesn’t feel warm, Rutgers Cooperative Extension recommends turning the material, adding a little water, or adding more green scraps.
Do I have to stir it?
It’s up to you, experts say.
“Stirring provides the air,” Skeen says. “I love my tumbler because I give it a turn every time I go to empty my kitchen compost bucket. In season, I get beautiful compost every six to eight weeks. If you don’t turn your pile, it will still break down but will take much longer.”
“Turning over the material is helpful, but it’s hard to do,” Henry says. “I’m a lazy composter, so I don’t do it. It takes 12 to 18 months, but it works.”
“Turning it will make it break down faster,” Almendinger says, “but you don’t have to do it.”
Why do I still have clumpy stuff that won’t break down?
A disadvantage to having a single compost bin is that you’re constantly adding new material to the same pile, so some newer scraps can get jumbled up into the finished compost.
“When something doesn’t break down, it is usually because it shouldn’t have been added to the pile in the first place or I didn’t take the time to chop it up,” Skeen says. “Smaller means more surface area, means quicker decomposition. I strain that stuff out of the compost and either chop it up or remove it.”
“When we add newspaper and other paper scraps,” Henry says, “we have to rip it so it doesn’t clump.”
“With big, fibrous things, like tomato and zucchini plants, put them at the bottom so it has pressure and heat, and it’ll break down faster,” Almendinger says. “It also provides drainage for the pile.”
Are we there yet?
Patience is a gardener’s friend.
“It’s not hard to do,” Skeen says. “Matter wants to break down. If you are attentive and follow basic rules—correct ratios, chop before you add, keep it moist, turn your pile—you will get compost faster than if you just dump things and wait for it to break down on its own.”
“You can always use more compost than you’ll be able to make,” Henry says. “It just depends on how much time you can put into it. Whatever you do, it’ll happen. What goes around, comes around, and then you have this treasure.”
You will know your compost is ready to use when it looks and feels like rich, black soil. You can turn it into your garden soil, shovel by shovel, or you can sprinkle it on top or around the roots of newly planted seedlings. You can use it in window boxes and flower pots, too.
By using compost, you eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers. You also should see an improvement in water retention and soil erosion in your garden. And you’ll have less garbage to lug out to the curb every week.
“Just imagine if everyone started composting, what a dramatic impact it would have on our landfills,” Skeen says. “Your garden will love you! Homemade compost is the best amendment you can give your garden.”
5 Crucial Food-Waste Facts
You’ve heard all the benefits of composting. But you’re still not convinced it’s worth the effort. Consider these five facts:
• Forty percent of the food supply in the United States is not eaten, according to the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic.
• One-third of the food produced in the world is lost or wasted every year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
• Food waste is the single largest component of municipal solid waste in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
• Food waste squanders resources, including water, land, energy, labor and money.
• When food is dumped in a landfill, it creates methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.
The state of New Jersey has taken action. In July 2017, then-Gov. Chris Christie signed a law requiring New Jersey to cut food waste in half by 2030. The law mirrors an Obama-era initiative by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Food waste reduction is a major goal for the restaurant industry in 2018, according to the National Restaurant Association, along with related concepts such as “root-to-stalk” cooking.
Along with improving your garden soil, your backyard compost heap can reduce the amount of food that your home sends to landfills.