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Gardening beds at Herricks Lane Farm in Jamesport, one of two local resources to help us put together this guide to composting 101.

What is composting?

Composting is the process by which organic matter decomposes. Compost will enrich any and all soil readily available. The organic matter in compost increases the quality of soil, reduces soil erosion and stores nutrients that feed bacteria, fungi, protozoa and earthworms that enhance your soil. Compositing also helps reduce the need for fertilizers, actively feeds the organisms that live in your soil, and is great for your flowers, vegetables and fruits.

Why should you consider composting?

Composting is something you can start any time right in your own backyard. Nicole Orens, co-owner of Herricks Lane Farms, is a huge proponent of it.

“I always encourage people to compost at some level so they send less to landfills,” she said. “We all need to take responsibility for our waste.”

According to Environmental Protection Agency Municipal Solid Waste data, 30-60% of U.S. household waste includes organic matter that could have been composted instead of sent to a landfill. 

Roxanne Zimmer, community horticulture specialist at Cornell Cooperative Extension, says in her presentation, “The Magic of Composting,” that “the single best thing you can do for your yard is [to] add compost.” She said the best way to do so is to make it yourself.

“You know exactly what’s in it and you’re reducing your household waste that isn’t going to a landfill,” she said. 

These experts want you to consider how food scraps might be used differently than as traditional household waste. (Kelly Franké Illustration)

Learning about composting

If you’re interested in developing knowledge on composting before you get started, there are online videos that can help guide you through the process. If you’re looking for something a little more detailed, Zimmer recommends these informational books; “Healthy Soils for Sustainable Gardens” by Brooklyn Botanic Garden; “Let It Rot!” By Stu Campbell; and the “Rodale Book of Composting” by Jerry Minnich, which can all be found through the Suffolk County Library system.

How can you get started?

You have to start by accumulating your own waste.

Leaves are golden when it comes to composting and can be mixed with household matter such as coffee grounds, egg shells, vegetable peels, yard clippings, seaweed and more.

When it comes to even more efficient compost, Zimmer recommends a three-to-one ratio on brown to green matter — meaning dry to wet material. Browns include leaves, straw and shredded paper that isn’t treated or coated, wood chips, grocery bags, sawdust and cardboard. Greens include grass clippings, fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds and tea and plant trimmings.

Things that should not go in your compost are weeds, manure, bones, wood ash, meats, fish, plants with disease, dairy, grease or fat.

What are the next steps?

Not every bit of waste needs to find its way to a garbage can when a compost bin is an option. (Kelly Franké Illustration)

First and foremost — now that you have material to compost with — get to know your soil. A great place to start is visiting the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s web soil survey online and determining what type of soil is in your back or front yard. Knowing this information will help your composting process and give you insight into what your soil needs or already has. 

 Once you figure out what type of soil you have, the next step is to determine where you are going to want to do your composting. Composting can be done both inside and outside your home depending on your preferences and there are about four different methods that you can choose from. Zimmer said the sheet composting method, using raised garden beds, is most often recommended here.

“Long Island soil is generally very shallow and that’s why we recommend that everyone build or design raised beds,” she said.

Orens said in addition to the four composting methods, “simply rake together a large pile of dried leaves and allow them to break down over the course of a season” for a hassle-free workaround.

The four methods

Method 1

This is the “do nothing” method, which is done outdoors. It is essentially a process in which you simply let your compost pile rot on its own. “If you have the space, [you] can simply pile up [your] yard with waste and kitchen scraps and let nature do its thing,” Orens said.

For the best results — and if you have the time to get a little fancy — you’ll want to build three bays out of any desired matter (planks, palettes, wire, fence, etc.) to organize your process. The first bay will house incoming material such as your household waste, then the second bay will contain what’s “cooking” —all the gathered material decomposing at optimal temperatures — and the third bay is the processed compost ready for use. 

Method 2

This is known as sheet composting — or lasagna composting — and is done outdoors. The process starts with a base layer of wet newspaper sheets or cardboard. You’ll want to make sure you’ve covered your desired area with as much of the wet material as needed. Once you’ve laid down the base, you are going to alternate between layers of as much green and brown material as you want. Once you’ve built up your pile, for the best results, top off your masterpiece with a thick layer of leaves. This method is also great for your back because there is no digging required. Zimmer said it’s the easiest way.

Method 3

A more contained and smaller-portioned outdoor composting method, it consists of devices such as bins, bags, pails or tumblers that are off the ground and not in loose piles. This method has its advantages, such as being useful in small yards, keeping critters away, and being more contained; however, it also limits the amount of input, takes about six or more months for results. Tumblers can also cost $100 or more. 

The worm method provides a year-round, indoor approach to composting. (Kelly Franké Illustration)

Method 4

Worm composting is when you have a bin of soil full of red wiggler worms that compost the materials you drop in. Red wiggler worms are the best ones to use when indoor composting and can be bought in bulk from various stores such as the North Fork Worm Farm. You can also buy worm starter culture during the warmer months from Herricks Lane Farm. 

Orens is a huge fan of vermicomposting, as it’s also known, using the process on her farm for just about everything from seed starting to planting out. 

“Composting with worms is apartment- or small-space friendly and environmentally sound,” she said. “And because it’s a closed system, it does not bring with it a lot of the issues of a regular, outdoor system.” 

It’s also a composting method you can maintain in the winter while being great for families since kids can be more hands-on with the process. 

You can either make your own closeable composting bin with a trash pail or you can buy a pre-made vermicomposting bin. Either way, you and your kids are able to compost in the comfort of your own home year-round while still cutting down on waste.

When will you see results?

Compost can take several months before being ready to use, but don’t lose hope. Just remember to be diligent! Continue to add material — alternating between green and brown matter — and don’t let it get too dry or wet. 

Once your compost is ready it should look almost identical to soil and can be used in the spring or fall to top dress your lawn with about a half inch spread across before being raked in. Once your compost is added, grass, vegetables, flowers and all other plants will begin to benefit.