A Beginner’s Guide to Composting

Here at LoaTree, we’re no stranger to the benefits of reducing and reusing our waste. Our office strives to promote a sustainable environment through practices big and small. From composting our daily coffee grinds and keeping reusable utensils on us when we go out to eat, to utilizing solar energy as our office energy source and working on green business certifications like our 1% for the Planet membership, we are always considering how we can be more green. As an organization that wholeheartedly believes in environmental protection, it is a pleasure to belong to a community that shares this same mindset.

Santa Barbara County sends only 20% of our food scraps to landfills in comparison to the United States’ average of 40%, but we should still strive to lower this percentage in order to reduce our natural resource consumption, cut greenhouse gas emissions, and save money. Since 2009, Santa Barbara’s Commercial Foodscraps Composting Program has included over 200 participating businesses including coffee shops, restaurants, hotels, schools, and more striving to reduce their food waste through composting. To encourage these efforts at a residential level, Santa Barbara County’s Public Works Department created the Backyard Composting Program, which provides free public workshops to help residents take on backyard composting.

For more information on upcoming workshops in your area, visit www.LessIsMore.org/Workshops.


Photo by Dan Keck on Flickr

Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) — otherwise known as garbage — consists of everyday items that we use and throw away. Organic materials such as food scraps and yard clippings make up the largest component of MSW, and when sent to landfills, take up a lot of space and release harmful greenhouse gases as they break down. Composting can reduce the amount of trash that is traditionally sent to landfills by utilizing this organic waste and storing it under conditions that allow it to break down naturally in your own yard, as well as eliminating the need to transport waste from homes to landfills. The resulting compost can then be used as a natural fertilizer that benefits your garden — all while reducing your carbon footprint!

You don’t have to be a gardening expert to make your outdoor space thrive this planting season. Simply adding compost to your soil will help to keep it moist, allow plants to fight off common diseases, promote plant growth and nutrient absorption, and recycle your organic waste. Help your garden thrive while duly helping the environment with these simple steps!

Composting Bins

compost bin

Photo by Andy Carter on Flickr

There are a variety of different bins you can use while composting, including store-bought purpose-built plastic bins, homemade slatted wooden bins, and large recycled containers. Santa Barbara County offers a discounted composting bin program with bins made by Earth Machine and sold for $45.00 each. If you prefer to do without a bin, you can also opt to start composting on an empty 3 x 3 ft outdoor site. Place your composting pile on a level, well-drained surface with easy access to water.


Composting Materials

compost material

Photo by August Muench on Flickr

Your composting pile should be composed of about 60% “brown” materials, and 40% “green” Materials. Brown materials are rich in carbon and include dried leaves, dead flowers/plants, shredded newspaper, cardboard torn into small pieces, finely chopped wood and bark chips, straw, or corn stalks. Green materials are great sources of nitrogen, such as grass clippings, fruit and vegetable scraps, manure from barnyard animals, coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, hair and feathers, and eggshells. There are some items you should avoid composting, including diseased plants, weeds with seeds or roots, dairy products, dog or cat feces, and anything containing meat, oil, fat, or grease. These items may cause your compost to smell, or attract animals and pests.


Photo by Eddie Kopp on Unsplash

Getting Started

Whether you opt to use a compost bin or an empty space in your yard, creating your compost pile is simple. Clear an area over bare soil to allow worms and other beneficial organisms to make their way into the pile, and then you’re ready to begin!

  1. Combine green and brown materials

To start making your compost pile, spread a layer several inches thick at the bottom of your bin or on top of your site with coarse, dry materials such as twigs, hay, or straw. This layer will allow for oxygen to be drawn up into the pile from the bottom. Top off that layer with a 4 inch layer of additional “brown material,” followed by a thin layer of soil. Next, you’ll want to add a 4 inch layer of “green materials,” topped with an additional thin layer of soil. Moisten each layer with a light mist from your garden hose, and repeat this process until your pile is at least 3 ft deep.

    2) Water your pile

Sprinkle water over the pile regularly so it has the consistency of a damp sponge. If too much water is added, the microorganisms in your pile will become waterlogged and your pile will rot instead of compost. Adding dry, brown materials to a soggy, smelly pile will help with this issue. If your pile looks extremely dry, add additional green materials and a light mist of water. Monitor the temperature of your pile with a thermometer, or check by hand by reaching into the center.

   3) Mix your pile

Within 7-10 days, your pile should heat up to the ideal internal temperature. The best time to turn the compost is when the center of the pile feels warm, or when a thermometer reads between 130 and 150 degrees F. In order to provide your pile with oxygen, turn it about once a week with a garden fork. Stirring up the pile will help to reduce odor, prevent material from becoming matted down, help destroy unwanted disease, and maintain beneficial microbes.


Photo by Neslihan Gunaydin on Unsplash

Using your compost

When the compost no longer gives off heat and becomes dry, dark, and crumbly, it’s fully cooked and ready to feed to the garden. This process can take anywhere from four weeks to twelve months. An easy way to test if your compost is ready is placing a handful from the center of the pile, moistening it, and placing it in a sealed plastic bag for five to seven days. If the contents have a pleasant, earthy, smell, your compost is ready to use! Add to house plants, lawns, trees and shrubs, flower beds, vegetable plants, or potted plants and watch your garden take flight. Happy planting season!

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