Earth Day: that holiday you always try to remember, until a rambunctious coworker reminds you it was actually last week. This year, on April 22 (the 46th anniversary of Earth Day) the world will celebrate with the historic signing of the Paris Agreement, an international effort by 120 countries to reduce greenhouse gasses, limit the increase in average global temperatures, and save all humanity as we know it. Okay, so that last one may have been a bit dramatic, but you get the picture: it’s important.

As we approach this significant (yet forgettable) day, it’s important to keep in mind the original intention of the holiday by focusing on the little things we can do to make the world a better place. That’s why today I’ve decided to talk about composting, the year-round practice that can help us all feel a little less guilty in case we forget about Earth Day next year.

What is compost?

Simply put, compost is just decomposed organic matter that’s used as a fertilizer or a soil amendment. Fertilizers add nutrients to the ground so plants can stay healthy, and soil amendments (also called conditioners) are used to improve the quality of the soil (pH, water retention, etc.).

There are lots of products on the market that can be used as fertilizers or soil amendments, and they’re easily available at your local garden center, hardware store, or even your supermarket. The problem with these products is that they contain high concentrations of nitrogen. Nitrogen is a necessity for plant growth (it’s namely the makeup of chlorophyll), but a lot of it can’t be absorbed so it ends up being passed along to the groundwater. That veritable boatload of nitrogen in our groundwater can end up causing problems for wildlife (which can be passed along to our food), and can even end up in our drinking water (which can cause health problems including birth defects). It’s no wonder so many people have started to gravitate towards more natural methods like composting.

How is compost made?

Now that we’ve talked about the importance of composting, we get to focus on the fun part: making it. As I mentioned above, compost is just decomposed organic material, so chances are you already have everything you need. There are generally two methods of composting: using a bin or a tumbler. You can buy either type (they generally range from $30 to $200), get a kit to make a bin, or even make a bin with things lying around in your basement, garage, or shed.

Then, you can add a mixture of “brown” and “green” materials to your container to get started. You’ll need to turn it regularly to promote the growth of bacteria, which in turn breaks down all of the organic matter. You pretty much just need that bacteria to get the job done, so heat, oxygen, and moisture are all perfect ingredients for the equation. Keep in mind that if you build or buy a bin for your compost, you may need to turn it periodically with a pitchfork or shovel, but with a tumbler, all you need is a few quick turns of the handle or drum. 

Brown waste can be made from any carbon-heavy materials, such as:

Dried leaves
Fallen branches (cut up)
Old newspapers
Junk mail
Wood chips
Cardboard
Dryer lint
And other similar materials

Green waste is usually made from nitrogen based materials like:

Fruit and vegetable peels or scraps
Coffee grounds
Tea leaves
Miscellaneous table scraps (whatever’s left on the plate that isn’t meat or fish)
Lawn clippings
Seaweed and kelp
Egg shells
Any other natural material you can think of

It’s all in the mix.

The key to having a good compost pile is having a decent mix of both brown and green waste. As long as you get the mix right, you shouldn’t have any problems putting the compost to work for you. Besides that, you just have to make sure you have a good container that allows oxygen to enter the mix, that the material the container is made out of is able to retain heat, and that you add some moisture to the pile every once in awhile. You have to start off with a lot of waste in order to get a decent amount of compost to use in your garden, so don’t skimp on throwing things in there.

Don’t worry about getting the mix perfect during your first season. Figure out what works for you and your garden, and then keep trying until you get good results. You may even want to try a few mixes at a time as a test run. At the end of the day, just roll your sleeves up, dig in, and get your hands dirty; that’s really all you have to do to save the world. Oh, and maybe plant a tree or something.

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