One of the best things about composting is that it is nearly impossible to do it wrong, according to Julie Travaglini, senior director of education and curriculum for Allegheny Land Trust (ALT). Travaglini teaches classes on composting offered through ALT.
“You can’t compost incorrectly. If you are composting, you are doing it correctly,” she said.
There are a multitude of reasons to compost. “Up to 40 percent of food waste ends up in landfill. The number three item in landfills is paper, which can also be composted,” Travaglini said. “And you can create soil. Soil can be a limiting resource, and by composting, you lessen the need for synthetic soil.”
So, what exactly is compost? Compost is decomposed organic matter, so composting is collecting and storing organic wastes so that they can decompose into a soil-like material. “Composting works through the natural process of decomposition. Organic substances are broken down into simpler organic matter,” Travaglini explained.
Composting is actually a rather simple task with few guidelines. “You can spend as little or as much time as you want,” Travaglini said, noting that composting may simply be a pile of organic waste from meal preparation, to using a composting container to making a composting bed in your yard.
The first step is to collect the matter for composting. This can include vegetable and fruit scraps from meal preparation; coffee grounds; egg shells; grass and leaf litter if it has not be treated with chemicals; hay/straw; sawdust and wood chips; and shredded newspaper and cardboard. “You shouldn’t use meat or dairy scraps, and you should limit citrus scraps as they can kill the bacteria needed for the process,” Travaglini said.
It is important not to use treated lawn cuttings or any lawn, weed or leaf litter that appears diseased, Travaglini noted.
Travaglini recommends that a compost area be at least 3’ by 3’ to provide enough insulation and surface exposure to encourage decomposition. “But you can start with any size,” she said, adding that compost should be kept about as wet as a squeezed-out sponge and aerated on a regular basis.
Tumblers, either purchased or self-made, can simplify and assist in the process. A tumbler is a container where scraps and materials are placed and then turned into a mix and aerated.
Compost is ready to be used for planting and other needs when it looks like dark, rich soil. “It will also smell earthy,” Travaglini said. It can be used for any activity where you would use soil—planting vegetables and flowers, filling in areas, houseplants, and more.
Even those who live in apartments or urban areas can compost. There are small, countertop composters or you can just use a jar or other container.
“Start small, maybe get a small tumbler. That’s an easy way to start and you won’t get overwhelmed. Plus, it isn’t a big commitment and you can try it for a while; if you don’t like it, give the tumbler away,” Travaglini said.
For home gardeners like Kim Panormios of Franklin Park, composting is easy and beneficial. “I absolutely love to garden. Composted soil is great to mix in with my garden beds and really helps my plants,” she said. “I also like the idea of cutting down on all of the waste and doing something with it other than just throwing it away.”
Panormios has been composting for about four years and uses a dual-chamber compost tumbler. “I like that I can fill one side and once that’s full, start filling the other side while the full side breaks down,” she explained.
Like many, Panormios keeps a smaller container in her kitchen and once full, takes it out to her compost bin. “I fill it with different stuff from around the kitchen like potato skins and used coffee grounds. I’ll also shred some of the paper the kids bring home from school and throw that in there, too.”
One of the best parts about composting for Panormios is exactly what Travaglini mentioned—it’s easy. “I’m pretty laid-back and try to compost as much as I can, but I don’t stress if the kids throw a banana peel in the garbage by accident,” said Panormios. “I’m a little bit of a ’lazy’ composter. I don’t keep close tabs on how much browns or greens I add; I just throw stuff in and it surprisingly always breaks down, and I get amazing soil.”
Taking a class like the one Travaglini offers through Allegheny Land Trust or through other organizations can assist with learning how to compost, and there are online resources and books as well. But anyone can give it a try without much preparation.
“It can just be a pile in your backyard; you can use a container you buy or make, or even a jar,” said Travaglini. “Composting can be as simple or as complex as you want.”
For more information on the Allegheny Land Trust including courses and events, visit https://alleghenylandtrust.org.