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How to Create a Compost Center

Learn how to make your own organic recycling center right in your backyard.

Photo: Antonis Achilleos / The Nest

Don’t know exactly what compost is? You’re not alone. It’s a pretty new or foreign concept for lots of people. But it’s one of the hottest trends in recycling and it’s easy to do. So for those of you who aren’t already doing it, here’s a basic composting primer.

The Basics
Compost is a mix of yard and garden debris, kitchen scraps and other organic materials that breaks down into a nutrient-rich, dark, crumbly material. Bacteria and other microorganisms help to break the mix down into the dark material, also called humus. (No, not the chickpea kind of hummus -- this one’s only got one “m.”)

Composting is basically breaking down organic matter. In fact, all organic matter will become compost…eventually, but the point here is to speed along the process. It’s a great way to recycle your own yard waste, newspaper and kitchen scraps, which reduces your garbage load and helps the planet. And all you’ll need is a composting bin and a little know-how to get started.

The speed of composting depends on the right mix of moisture, oxygen content and temperature, and some key ingredients. Here’s what you’ll need of each:

A compost pile should be damp, but not wet -- kind of like a sponge you just squeezed out. Your bin should allow for easy drainage, since sitting water suffocates the good kind of bacteria that will help break down your organic matter, not to mention it’s an invitation for pests, like mosquitoes and raccoons. Water trickling through your pile can also wash away valuable heat and nutrients necessary for the composting process. On the other hand, if there isn’t enough water, the organic materials won’t break down well. So if you live in an arid area, you may need to add a little water with a hose if your compost pile gets too dry. However, if you’re experiencing a particularly wet month, you can take the lid off the bin on a sunny day to sop up the excess moisture.

The bacteria that break down the organic matter into compost require oxygen. To make sure your bin gets enough O2, you can either purchase a composting bin that aerates the compost on its own or use a pitchfork or similar tool to mix and flip over the compost yourself to make sure oxygen flows to all the layers. And believe it or not, making sure your compost is adequately aerated will also keep the smell from taking over your yard (or balcony).

You want to keep your compost bin warm: 90 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit makes for the most efficient composting. But as long as you keep the bin’s temperature above freezing, there will be some composting action going on. The microbes in your pile generate their own heat, so just place the bin in the sun and away from the wind, and it should generate heat on its own. In winter, use a compost bin with dark walls or place a black tarp over the compost pile to maintain optimal composting temperature.

The carbon-nitrogen content of your compost pile should be roughly 30:1. This means making sure you add a good balance of carbon-rich brown material (we don’t literally mean items that are the color brown here, it’s just the name), like dried grass, leaves, plants, dead flowers, shredded newspaper and so on, and nitrogen-rich green material, like kitchen scraps such as veggie and fruit peels. This mix is important because the microbes that break down your compost need a variety of food sources.