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Composting: A Cornerstone of Sustainable Living

By EarthX Stories posted 04-07-2020 12:55



The secret is out: composting is a pretty easy hobby to pick up for those interested in sustainable living. It requires little more than the proper tools and time. And as with anything, one of the most important tools at a gardener’s disposal is knowledge! So here are a few answers to the most frequently asked questions about sustainable composting.


What Goes in the Compost Pile?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the recipe for a good compost is only three ingredients long:

  • Browns: “dead” materials like dead leaves, cardboard, sawdust, wood chips
  • Greens: “live” materials like vegetable and fruit waste, coffee grounds, yard trimmings
  • Water

A healthy and sustainable compost pile has an equal amount of browns to greens with just enough water to keep the materials slightly moist. These materials should be stacked to alternate larger pieces of organic waste with smaller particles, allowing everything in the pile access to the water, oxygen, and other nutrients it needs to produce a healthy soil. 

A quick warning, though: some organic and inorganic materials are persona non grata in a compost pile. These include, but are not limited to: potentially toxic materials such as coal and charcoal ash, plants with an insect problem or evidence of disease, pet waste, and any yard trimmings treated with chemicals like pesticides. 

Additionally, items like bones, dairy products, and fats or oils can attract nasty critters you don’t want poking around your compost -- or at the very least produce an odor you don’t want wafting in your kitchen window on a particularly breezy morning.


What’s the Typical Setup?

Though a number of nifty tools and materials exist on the market for composting, a basic compost pile requires only two or three things.

First, find a dedicated area for the pile that is dry, shady and has good drainage. An ideal location will allow you to control conditions like moisture content and heat to some degree. Some gardeners may worry about placing a composting area too close to the home because of the smell, but a healthy compost should not produce any troublesome odors after the first few days of decomposition. 

Second, keep a pitchfork or shovel handy for turning the compost pile. Regular turning will expose all of the layers of compost to needed nutrients and ensure an even and controlled decay.

A tarp is a handy but optional tool for controlling heat and moisture in a composting pile. Use it to conserve heat and moisture if the weather is particularly cool or dry, or shield the pile during heavy rainfall to prevent waterlog.


The Care and Keeping of A Healthy Compost

Once the initial pile of compost begins its process of decay, maintenance is simple. Keep an eye on the pile; if it looks a bit dry, add some water. Cover the pile if heavy rains or cold weather are on the way.

Turn the pile often to introduce oxygen and spread around the nutrients in the pile. In the summer, a weekly turn is best; in the winter, the colder weather slows decay and a gardener can get away with monthly turns.

By general estimate, a gardener can expect to use their first batch of compost after 90 to 120 days of decomposition. Using composting “recipes” like the layer method can give the beginning composter a more definite idea of how long it takes for the transformation of trash to gardening treasure.

But once the pile begins to yield results, how do you use all of this beautiful soil?


So the compost pile is coming along nicely. Those banana peels and grass clippings are creating a beautiful end product and the pile is, well, piling up. But once that compost pile reaches a stage where it’s usable, a new challenge might arise -- figuring out how to use it all. 

Yard Maintenance

Whether you have a huge yard or a tiny postage stamp of grass, your lawn can always benefit from the nutrients present in a good, sustainable compost. For the best results, aerate your lawn and then spread anywhere from ⅛ to ¼ inch of compost on the surface. Like spreading a fertilizer, a layer of compost will introduce needed nutrients to your soil and promote healthy grass.

Seasonal Care

If spring planting is on the calendar, mix the soil in flower beds with compost to create your own garden soil mix! Compost can really kick-start the growth of young plants and seedlings. Spread about an inch of soil at the base of growing plants.

Compost can also be a helpful friend in the mulching process. When it’s time to spread mulch to conserve moisture in your soil or suppress weeds, start by spreading 1-2 inches of compost before introducing a top layer of mulch. The compost will promote soil health during dormant months.

Indoor Use

For sustainable living gurus without a yard or garden, potted plants are always a great way to bring the greenery indoors! As with outdoor use, combine compost with potting mix to introduce great nutrients to the soil while potting your plants. For plants that already live and thrive in a container, feel free to add about an inch of compost to the surface soil.

Still Have Extra?

If your compost pile is growing faster than you can put it to use, don’t be afraid to reach out to your community! Many areas have community gardens or local gardening clubs that might love a donation of quality, sustainable compost. 

University agricultural outreach programs may also be able to put you in touch with gardeners or community programs in need. Additionally, if you’re passionate about sustainable living but don’t have the space or ability to compost at home, your local university may sponsor a community composting program!

Enjoy your journey to sustainable living, and may it bring greener gardens to everyone. Happy composting!



04-22-2020 11:10

Love this topic. Great compost is the key to healthy soil. It's also beautiful and a perfect metaphor for our lives. I spend my life documenting waste and am pretty much addicted to its visual possibilities for telling stories of all kinds.

04-22-2020 09:34

Great post. I’m still trying to prefect this for our garden. 

04-21-2020 11:50

This is a great topic. Putting in a good word for Texas Disposal Systems, as I live in the Texas Hill Country on the west side of Austin:

"By reducing and reusing waste products, TDS is refusing to let our environment go to waste. We also provide the necessary infrastructure to allow our partners to cut down on their carbon footprint as well. Once organic materials such as brush, biosolids and discarded food are transported to our composting facility, we turn it into compost, which then can be used in soil and other products."

I think all city governments need to think composting through in more depth, and to help neighborhoods and entire developments (including apartment complexes - for instance, over 50% of Austin residents rent) - make composting easy and part of our daily lives. This is definitely "do-able." But it is going to take more education and outreach to make it happen. 

Also, different waste management companies recycle and compost differently. Hence, peer-to-peer industry conversations on the topic probably need to happen.

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