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What can I compost?

Can I compost bread?  Can I compost corncobs?  Can I compost leather gloves?  In a perfect world and under ideal conditions, the answer to all of the above is yes.  Unfortunately, this world is far from perfect, so that yes can be followed by a long string of asterisks.

One of the most common questions asked by those new to composting is “what can I compost?”

In truth, anything derived from plant or animal matter will biodegrade … eventually.  But time, temperature, and a slew of other variables will impact the practicality of choosing composting as a recycling method for any given material.

Generally, the home composter will do just fine using a tight, easy-to-turn vessel that contains excess liquid and deters marauders.  

Any mesh, drainage holes, or air vents in the composting unit should be 1/4 inch or less if deterring mice and the snakes that follow them is a priority.

With this type of composter, almost any kind of food waste (except meats and dairy) can be used as a feedstock.  Tear or chop big/dense leftovers like chunks of bread and corncobs into smaller pieces to expose more surface area to feasting microbes.  This helps all of the food waste degrade at a similar rate.

As for those gloves, while leather is compostable, so many manufactured products these days are processed, treated, or coated with chemicals that the leather might not be compost-friendly for the home compost pile.

Unless the manufacturer says an item is compostable in a home system and proves it with certification from a legitimate third-party, don’t put it in your compost pile.

Read the certification information carefully.  A lot of so-called “compostables” available in the marketplace cannot be composted where processes are simply not sufficiently robust to break down the material – and that would include nearly all residential composting efforts, as well as some city-owned and commercial operations.

Only a few US facilities use designs and/or technologies that can handle the full range of urban organic wastes.  (McGill is one of them.)

Good prep = rapid biodegradation

Chopping and shredding is something every large composting facility does to create a uniform particle size prior to composting.

These plants also mix thoroughly, ensure adequate airflow throughout the composting mass, and make certain the blend is neither too wet nor too dry.  

They also screen the compost post-processing to break up clumps and sift out any bigger, partially composted materials.  These are re-blended and added to a new composting pile to complete their decomposition.

The closer the home compost-maker can come to emulating these management practices (which are all about process control), the faster the rate of decomposition and higher the rate of composting success … even when breaking down tough ingredients.

That’s why modern, high-rate composting operations can handle things like biodegradable plastics and petroleum hydrocarbons when the home compost pile struggles with corncobs.

Don’t try this at home

While most things can be successfully composted at home, meat and dairy, along with the cooking juices and fats-oils-grease (FOG) in which they were prepared, cannot.

These types of foods will harbor pathogens, and the typical home composting effort will not reach the kill point temperatures required to neutralize them.

Pet waste falls into the same category.

However, small amounts of plant-based oils – provided they were not used to cook meats or dairy – can be composted at home.

We are talking about the salad dressing swimming with the leftover lettuce at the bottom of the serving bowl or the spritz of olive oil coating those uneaten air-fried veggies – not the 3 gallons of waste oil from the turkey fryer.

Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do with banned FOG except pour it into a non-recyclable container and toss it into the trash.  It won’t compost in the anaerobic environment of a landfill, but it won’t clog your pipes, septic system, or sewer lines, either.

In other words, never ever pour fats, oils, or grease down the kitchen sink.  And – no – a hot water chaser will not make the gunk magically disappear from your piping system.

The good news is FOG will compost at a facility using a good, commercial process.

In fact, commercial kitchens routinely send grease trap waste to composting facilities.  If your community doesn’t have a composting operation that can handle this type of food waste, perhaps it’s time to give the folks at City Hall a nudge.  

READ MORE:

This post also includes information on reducing the amount of FOG going to the landfill or sewer system from your kitchen.

FAQ: When is the best time to add compost?

Anytime is a good time to add compost.  Fall, spring, mid-season – every growing space can benefit from the boost of soil microbes and organic matter.

Is one timing option better than another?

A quick scan of gardening articles and blogs seems to indicate a slight lean toward fall.  Putting growing spaces to bed for the winter under a layer of compost and leaves gives soil microbes plenty of time to prep the ground for spring planting.

But incorporating compost a couple of weeks prior to seeding or transplanting at the start of the growing season works well, too.

No time to wait those extra 14 days?  Go ahead and add compost to the soil at planting time.  Just make sure that compost is fully mature.  (It should smell “earthy,” like soil from the forest floor.)  An immature product could compete with seedlings for nutrients or even burn young plants.  An unpleasant, ammonia odor is a telltale sign of immaturity.

If the compost at hand is still a bit too fresh, incorporate some air by turning with a shovel.  Dumping a bag onto a tarp or into a wheelbarrow will add air, as well.  Let it sit a couple of days, then check progress.  Keep “fluffing” the compost until it’s ready for use.

And don’t forget to add a bit of compost to container mixes, backfill, and other non-crop uses.  Follow manufacturer instructions, especially about amounts to use.  Depending on the feedstocks that make up the blend, some compost products may be richer than others.  Here’s the link to McGill’s use recommendations.

Most plants will welcome a little mid-season pick-me-up, too.  Simply sprinkle a little compost on top of a container’s soil layer, use as a side-dressing for row crops, or add a dusting over lawns.  Water in or lightly rake.

Manure vs. compost — which is the better choice?   Here are a couple of clues:

  1. The best thing about raw manure or poultry litter? It’s free.
  2. The best thing about compost? It works.

Here’s why:

  • Organic material (OM) is added to soils through manure decomposition.  But the amount is about equal to the amount of organic matter lost through natural processes. That’s why you may see no rise in field OM even after years of manure applications.  Compost adds stable organic matter.
  • Compost is a concentrate.  The amount of compost required is much less than the amount of manure required.  This helps to cut total number of trips over the field.
  • Compost keeps water and fertilizers at the root zone, mitigating fertilizer leaching, erosion and topsoil loss.
  • The natural microbial activity of compost does lots of good things for soil which, in turn, does good things for plants. Researchers report improved nutrient uptake and resistance to pests and diseases.
  • Compost is best for pasture and hay fields where raw manure applications can reinfect livestock with internal parasites, bacteria and viruses. Compost may be more palatable to grazing horses than untreated manure.

In the compost vs. manure debate, compost is the clear winner.

Learn how quality compost is manufactured

A Fredom Lawn still needs compost

The Freedom Lawn still needs a little compost.

Yale professors “invented” the Freedom Lawn in the early 1990s.  It’s a concept rooted in low maintenance residential turf areas. No watering, chemical management, or power mowers allowed.

Freedom Lawns replace the intensively-managed suburban lawn. They offer joyously weedy landscapes as a more environmentally-responsible option.

You’ll note the word invented is in quotes.  Some forward-thinking homeowners have long used this method of lawn care. But growing awareness of “greener” practices draws more and more people to the Freedom Lawn.  It’s an intentional lawn management method designed to protect ground and surface waters.

Unfortunately, great ideas don’t always work quite the way visionaries expect.  There’s a difference between the drawing board and real life situations.  So, the Virginia Turfgrass Council’s  journal added a caveat to the no-maintenance lawn.

The intention of the Freedom Lawn may be right for the times.  But research shows the reality can do more damage to water quality than traditional care.  In a nutshell, it says Freedom Lawns can be environmentally irresponsible.

Use Compost

The article offers a few tweaks to correct the failings of the no-input Freedom Lawn.  At no surprise to us, many of these suggestions include the use of compost.

Among 12 Best Management Practices (BMPs) for Sustainable Lawns are the following tenets:

  • Add a 1″-2” layer of quality compost before seedbed prep to benefit lawn health and aid water infiltration.
  • Repeatedly apply organic matter via the compost. Builds topsoil, binds nutrients and water, and promotes soil aggregation. This improves water infiltration and compaction resistance.
  • Add two compost applications per year at 100 lbs./1,000 sq. ft. (500 lbs. per application of compost for the typical 5,000 sq. ft. suburban lawn). This provides all the fertility the lawn requires and limits any potential P or N runoff.
  • Phosphorous (P) does not leach if there’s enough clay and/or organic matter in the soil.  Leaves, clippings, and compost add organic matter.  Because it’s slow-release, compost can help with N runoff, too.

High maintenance lawns are fast becoming as passé as the era of poodle skirts from which they came.  Learn to love those dandelions. Rejoice to find ourselves, quite literally, in the clover.  It’s important to remember the role healthy soil plays in maintaining a healthy lawn and planet.

Use chemicals or not, embrace species diversity for your lawn or not, mow it or not.  But do maintain soil organic matter.   Healthy soil makes any lawn care regime an environmentally-responsible effort.

Access the full article:  Are Freedom Lawns Environmentally Responsible? It’s well worth the read, even if your lawn is still stuck in the ‘50s.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE this blog post:  Fixing patches in a centipede lawn — why use compost?

PHOTO: Flickr/by Susan Harris

A:  No.  Our compost meets EPA Exceptional Quality standards for these types of products.

A:  Yes.  Our premium SoilBuilder compost is an excellent soil amendment for lawns and gardens and is very suitable for food crops.  Some of the largest commercial produce farms on the East Coast are using our products with excellent results.

Prior to planting, incorporate 2-3 inches of compost into the top 6-8 inches of soil.   Some gardeners will also periodically topdress with a sprinkle of compost throughout the growing season or use it as mulch.

At the end of the growing season, add a layer of compost on top of the dormant bed.  Soil critters will do the job of “tilling” the soil amendment in over the winter months, prepping the bed for spring activity.

Use compost to make your own potting and landscape mixes

SoilBuilder can also be used as an ingredient in potting mixes for container gardens and landscape mixes for raised beds. Just blend about 30 percent compost in with topsoil and other soil amendments or ingredients.  We use SoilBuilder in much the same way when we make McGill LandscapeMix and other blended soil amendment products.