Composting 101

| 10 May 2012 | 01:33

WEST MILFORD — Laura Calvetto has always been into the environment. It was just natural, then, that when she moved back to West Milford a dozen years ago, one of the first things she did was build a compost bin.

Not usually the first order of business for a new home buyer, but Calvetto was eager to get going on it.

Compost is defined as "a mixture that consists largely of decayed organic matter and is used for fertilizer and conditioning land."

Calvetto does her best to leave as small a carbon footprint as possible. She recycles everything possible, grows many of her own vegetables in her garden and composts her yard waste and kitchen scraps. Calvetto is the public information officer of the township's Beautification and Recycling Task Force Committee. She agreed to share her knowledge of composting with Messenger readers so they too can get going on this natural process that is beneficial to both the environment and ultimately our pocketbooks.

"A compost pile is an efficient, ecologically sound way of getting rid of food scraps and yard waste," said Calvetto.

And spring is a perfect time to start composting. There are plenty of grass clippings and weeds from gardens to add to a compost. Fruit and vegetable scraps are plentiful and there are many leftover leaves from last year that can be utilized.

Getting started So, if you would like to try give composting a try, here are Calvetto's tips.

Select a spot for your compost: Not too shady, not too sunny. Your compost site should be open to rain water, although it shouldn't get too wet. It can be near a house but shouldn't be up against the house because of moisture that can cause mold.

Select or build a container: To begin, you must first have a container in which to compost. Calvetto said it is very easy to build your own or you can buy a composting bin. She built her own from wood and fencing. She recommends getting wire fencing and make a hoop, three feet high and three feet in diameter. Or stack up a few cinder blocks. You may buy a compost tumbler, that can be purchased online. Be sure to follow manufacturer's instructions. Calvetto also said a bear trash can would work with holes drilled into it to allow air in and water out. It should be kept moist, not wet.

Start composting: Begin collecting your kitchen scraps. Calvetto recommends cutting them up and putting them in a sealed plastic container that can be kept in the refrigerator until you add them to your pile.

Calvetto recommends 1/3 browns, 1/3 greens and 1/3 kitchen scraps to create an ideal compost mixture.

After you select or build a container, put a four-inch layer of brown material on the bottom. The browns include dried leaves and dried grass, pine needles, straw and hay. Untreated sawdust is also allowed in small quantities. Brown materials provide carbon to the pile.

Next, layer four inches of greens, which include weeds, fresh grass clippings and green leaves.

Finally, add four inches of collected fruit and vegetable scraps. You may also include coffee grounds and filters, tea bags and rinsed egg shells. "Anything that grows from the ground," said Calvetto. She said she's thrown in grains, beans, leftover pasta and rice. Do not include meat, animal or dairy products, or dried fruit.

Continue adding to the pile in the same proportions. After sitting for a few weeks, turn the pile over. As you add more materials, continue to mix the pile.

Use a garden spade or fork to mix it together. Mixing it aerates the pile. Water is necessary for the process too. Calvetto recommends watering the compost pile during dry times; it should be moist but not wet.

And don't be surprised to find your pile steaming a little. A compost pile can reach up to 160 degrees with the correct rations of ingredients. Don't be alarmed; it won't combust, Calvetto said. "It just means it's 'cooking' well."

Manure from an herbivore, such as a cow, may be added. However feces from other animals should never be put into a compost.

Also, Calvetto said not to include newspapers or office papers since they are chemically treated.

"You don't want to put anything chemically treated in the pile," said Calvetto. "If you treat your lawn with pesticides or herbicides, don't put grass clippings in the pile either. It will destroy the microbes." Instead, possibly collect clippings from a neighbor who doesn't use chemicals.

The smaller the items, the faster the process. Calvetto said you might want to run over your leaves with the lawn mower to speed up the decomposition process.

In winter, Calvetto recommends making a well in the center of the pile. Keep a garbage can filled with leaves and twigs from the fall to mix with the food scraps.

But does it smell? Standing right next to Calvetto's compost container, there was no smell at all coming from it. She had started the new compost last year so there was plenty of compost already in it. Hers sits off the ground, which she said can cause the pile to dry out and requires watering. She recommends keeping the pile on the ground, although she had to move hers up because of roots growing into her old compost. Keeping the compost on the ground also allows for worms, which help with the decomposition process.

What about animals? One common question about composting is its attraction to animals. Calvetto said she has never had any animals drawn to her compost pile, except maybe the occasional squirrel. Living in bear country, that is a concern. Calvetto has never had one near hers.

Benefits of compost Not only does compost keep many natural materials out of landfills, it also helps our gardens naturally. Instead of chemical fertilizers, home gardeners can use their compost to fertilizer their gardens and lawns. And you will be saving your township money. Calvetto said West Milford pays $70.50 per ton in tipping fees for its garbage, 30 percent of which is food waste.

"If more people composted, we could save on tipping fees," she added.

And just think of the wonderful compost you will end up with.

"The product of a compost pile looks like dirt, rich and black," said Calvetto. "This makes wonderful fertilizer. It releases nutrients slowly, not like commercial fertilizers."