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BEACON Senior News - Western Colorado

Backyard composting FAQs: Your composting questions answered

Jul 01, 2024 04:04PM ● By Bryan Reed

Backyard composting has surged in popularity as more people choose to turn their food and yard waste into a nutrient-rich source for their gardens. Many have discovered that 100 pounds of compost can retain up to 185 pounds of water, which is a game changer in our climate.

Our high desert soils are often deficient in organic matter. This breakdown is essential for nourishing plants and trees. Adding compost not only enriches the soil with organic matter but also delivers it in a form that plants can readily absorb. 

Having led numerous composting workshops recently, I’ve encountered several recurring questions from participants. In this article, I’ll address these frequently asked questions to help you enhance your composting practices.

Q: Is composting icky? 

A: No, properly managed compost shouldn’t be icky at all. To effectively harness the power of composting, we need to balance your food waste and lawn clippings (sources of nitrogen) with dried leaves or straw (sources of carbon). This mix allows naturally occurring microbes to thrive, feasting on the proteins in nitrogen sources and the carbohydrates in carbon sources. I’ve consulted with various community groups and individual backyard composters who initially piled up their green waste without carbon additives, resulting in an oozy, smelly mess. This is because improper balance leads to slower decomposition, which can indeed get icky. However, well-maintained compost does not smell or attract flies and vermin.


Q: What is the proper balance of green waste and carbon sources?

A: Understanding the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio is key to successful composting. Food waste typically runs 12 parts carbon for every 1 part nitrogen (12:1), while lawn clippings are around 17:1. Leaves can vary significantly, from 40:1 to 80:1, indicating they are richer in carbon compared to food waste or grass clippings. Materials like straw, newspaper and wood chips have even higher ratios, at 80:1, 150:1 and 400:1, meaning they need more nitrogen-rich materials to break down.

In composting, the ideal ratio is about 30:1. That’s why a pile of just food waste, with its low 12:1 ratio, can become quite smelly. However, by mixing food waste with higher carbon materials like leaves, you can adjust the mix to achieve the optimal 30:1 ratio. Locally, we have some wiggle room with our compost ratios. Anything between 25:1 and 40:1 will work.

For practical application, mixing 2-3 parts carbon materials (like leaves) with 1 part nitrogen materials (such as food waste) will work fine. I typically fill a 5-gallon bucket of food waste over a week and mix it into the compost pile with three buckets of leaves every weekend to maintain the ideal 30:1 ratio. 


Q: Do I need to add livestock manure to my compost?

A: Adding manure to compost isn’t required, but aged, dry manures can enhance the process without the smells. 

Manure introduces classes of microbes that aren’t found anywhere else. These microbes can accelerate the composting process, help achieve higher temperatures within the pile and ultimately result in a nutrient-richer compost.  

Different types of manure have varying carbon-to-nitrogen ratios: horse manure is approximately 22:1, cow manure is 20:1 and rabbit manure is around 15:1. Adding a shovel of these manures each time you introduce new materials to your compost pile won’t throw off the desired 30:1 ratio. 

Chicken manure, which has a ratio of 6:1, is an excellent source of nitrogen. It’s best added with the green waste materials as part of that 1-part nitrogen formula.


Q: Can I compost human manure? What about dog and cat poop?

A: No. Don’t add those manures to your backyard compost without the proper knowledge and techniques.

Both humans and our pets harbor specific microbes in our digestive systems that aid in breaking down food. Some of these microbes can pass through our digestive tracts and become harmful pathogens in our waste. 


Q: Can I add wood ash from my fire pit to the compost pile?

A: You can, but limit the amount to about one shovel per entire compost pile. While it’s a common practice on the East Coast to add wood ash to compost in order to raise the pH level in the soil, our soils are very alkaline, so adding wood ash can make them infertile.


Q: What else can I compost?

A: Pet hair, along with finger and toenail clippings, are rich in trace minerals and break down quickly. Vacuum cleaner fluff, which often contains misplaced soil and food crumbs, is also compostable. Other items of organic origin suitable for composting include dryer lint, used coffee filters, tea bags and cotton balls. Even stale cereal and rancid grains and nuts can be composted. 


Q: Can I legally compost my dead relatives?

A: Yes, Colorado legislation does allow for the composting of deceased family members. This process, known as natural organic reduction, is considered more environmentally sensitive compared to traditional burial or cremation. Composting a body returns it to the soil, aligning with the preferences of many Coloradans who desire a less costly and more natural end-of-life process. 

However, there are strict regulations about filing for a death certificate and the procedure used. Some human composting services are turning to alkaline hydrolysis, a chemical process that involves liquids to accelerate decomposition.


JULY GARDENING TIP:

We’re entering the dog days of summer, so keep an eye on soil moisture and keep that mulch in place!


Send your gardening questions to Bryan in care of the BEACON, or email him at [email protected]

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