Hot compost, vermicompost, compost tea… Oh my! If you are new to composting and don’t know where to start, I get it. There is a lot of information out there and so many schools of thought about composting!
Call me arrogant, (it’s how you pronounce my name in German anyway) but after reading a ton of stuff online and feeling really intimidated and terribly confused at first, I am now ready to distill my half-baked understanding of the process into an easy beginner’s guide — which hopefully inspires you to get composting too!
To break it down (ha ha), compost is simply decomposed organic matter. Composting is the process of adding a balanced combination of biodegradable materials together, such as leaves, straw, dry grass clippings, kitchen scraps, and garden waste. With the help of decomposers (microorganisms, worms, insects, fungi, etc) and the right conditions, the raw materials break down into one homogenous nutrient-rich, soil-like material — finished compost.
Finished compost is often referred to as “black gold”, and rightly so. It is truly magical stuff! Compost is a rich, balanced, natural organic fertilizer, and an invaluable resource for gardeners and organic farmers. Finished compost is often mixed into soil as an amendment.
Compost increases the content of organic matter in soil, which in turn improves its texture, drainage, and fertility. Compost also invigorates the soil food web by providing nutrients, moisture, and habitat for a large range of beneficial life forms. When made correctly, compost provides these benefits to the garden without the risks of “burning” or shocking plants — a common concern when using synthetic fertilisers.
There are countless advantages to creating and using compost to support plant health in a home garden or farm setting. Yet even if you are not an avid gardener or don’t have the “need” for organic compost at home, I still urge you to practice composting at some level! There are many benefits of composting — beyond the garden. (Also, you can always give your compost to your friends who like to garden. Hi there!)
Food waste is one of the biggest waste streams in Singapore. It makes up about half of the average 1.5kg of waste disposed by each household in Singapore daily. Semakau, the island we created out of sea space specifically to hold our waste, is set to reach its maximum capacity by 2035 if we don’t change our ways.
The act of composting will help divert some of our food waste otherwise destined for the landfill. Less food rotting in the landfill means less greenhouse gas emissions, along with a reduced risk of contaminating water resources. Composting is a great example of one of the best types of recycling: “upcycling” in which we transform an unwanted waste product into something even better — like turning rotting food into “black gold”! Therefore, composting is highly encouraged on the home scale as well as a municipal or commercial level.
There are several different ways to compost but what I’ve found best for our situation (a pair of lazy people with some outdoor space, who'd prefer not to purchase any bulky gadgets/equipment) is a combination of creating a passive compost pile, composting in place, and burying.
Passive compost pile
Materials are piled up and nature is left to do its thang, slowly breaking matter down over time. It could be a literal free-standing pile in the corner of the garden, but is most often contained within a compost bin of some sort. There are so many fancy bins out there but all you really need is an old flower pot and a lid (ours is from an old barbecue pit) to get the job done. This method consists of minimal intervention, aside from turning the pile every week or so, and can be a fairly slow process.
Ideally, you want your compost pile to be damp. An overly dry and airy pile will take forever to break down, while a pile that is too soggy can easily become stinky and anaerobic. We don’t usually water our compost pile unless we’ve gone without rain for days.
Composting in place
This is perhaps the most hands-off approach to composting, where biodegradable materials are simply left to decompose in your growing area. For example, fallen leaves left to compost in place provide a layer of mulch that eventually breaks down into a rich humus, mimicking a natural forest floor. Despite the limitations of this method being that it only works with garden waste — we don’t want our kitchen scraps attracting all sorts of pests — this has been a highly effective way for us to introduce organic matter to our very clayey vegetable patch.
Burying food waste in your garden helps divert it away from the landfill. The food waste will decompose in your veggie patch, feeding worms, other insects, and the soil food web in the process. Be mindful of how much you are burying and try to spread it out. For example, you can dig a long trench between your rows of vegetables then fill the trench with a thin layer of food scraps and then cover it back up with soil.
I was aiming for a trench but ended up with just a hole. But whatever, you get the point.
After 14 months of amending our soil through these composting methods, we are finally starting to see a real difference. Sure, we still use store-bought compost every now and then, particularly when transplanting new seedlings. But it honestly is so rewarding to be able to regenerate the land in this simple way and see our efforts paying off.
Look at how our much our soil has improved overtime!
So, what goes into a compost pile?
“Greens” rich in nitrogen typically include mushy banana peels, spent coffee grounds, limp lettuce, and half-eaten apples. More often than not, they have a high moisture content. While dry materials such as crisp leaves, cardboard, straw, and wood chips are sources of carbon known as the “browns”. Most organic waste you find around the house can be composted but there are certain items which you do not want in your home compost pile. These include (but aren’t limited to) meat, dairy, treated paper products, fats or oils, and plants with diseases. When in doubt, just Google!
It can get even more confusing because some “greens” can eventually turn into “browns”, such as fresh grass clippings that are allowed to dry out before being composted. But in general, all compostable materials can be broken down into these two main categories. To keep it simple, aim for a ratio of about two-thirds browns to one-third greens by volume.
This doesn’t need to be an exact science, but trust me… You’ll want to maintain a fairly well-balanced pile. Nothing like visiting your good ol’ compost bin on a Sunday morning, only to open it and be smacked in the face by foul odor and have cockroaches run up your arm. War and famine aside, there might not be anything worse. Fret not though as a good fluffing to introduce some air and the addition of some browns usually helps turn a nASSty pile into a nice pile once more.
Hmm... What else did I miss? Probably a lot, but I'm tired now. Just give a shout if there's anything you'd like to discuss or contest. If not, happy composting! Welcome to the club :)