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What are you doing to help the environment? We’re increasingly familiar with how to shop, travel, and recycle responsibly, but there’s one good deed that many people still overlook.
Food waste makes up at least 30% of what we throw in the trash, even though it’s easy to recycle it at home by composting. The environmental benefits of composting are far-reaching and include reducing waste, improving the quality of our soil and, of course, improving the health of our gardens.
If you see a compost heap as a dirty, smelly corner of a traditional vegetable garden, think again. Instead, imagine a fuss-free, cheap and quick way to feed your plants, even if all you have is a few pots on a windowsill.
What is composting?
Composting is nature’s way of recycling, and it has the added benefit of producing food for your garden. You collect your food or garden waste, place it in a container and give it time to break down.
Most compost bins produce plant food in 2 forms. Firstly, the waste becomes a moist, soil-like substance known as humus (with only one m – no chickpeas here!). Secondly, a robust and rich liquid known as ‘tea’ collects in the bin, which you can dilute and use in your watering can to give your plants a nutritious meal.
The bacteria living in your bin create your compost. To compost successfully, all you need to do is keep the microbes happy. They need air circulation, moderate warmth, and a little moisture. As long as you give them the right balance of material to digest, there’s nothing else to it.
Why is composting good for the environment?
1. It reduces food waste
Composting has lots of benefits for the environment, but the main one is that it gives a second life to the food waste that we currently send to landfills. Many people believe vegetable peelings rot in dumps, but this isn’t the case. They can’t break down in plastic bags and being buried in landfills denies them the air they need to break down.
All waste sent to landfill damages the environment, not least because decomposing rubbish releases harmful greenhouse gasses such as methane. Recycling food waste into compost is an excellent step towards tackling this problem by reducing the amount of waste we send to landfill unnecessarily.
2. It’s an alternative to chemical fertilizers and pesticides
When you feed your plants with compost, you give them the nutrients they need to survive in a natural way instead of with chemical fertilizers. It’s easy to add a capful of shop-bought plant food to your watering can, but the chemicals in it can have a damaging effect on the environment.
Fertilizers pose the biggest environmental risk when they wash out of the soil and into rivers. The chemicals can end up in our water supply and the food chain, sometimes with devastating effects. When you choose natural compost instead, these potentially dangerous products are no longer needed.
Harmful chemicals are also found in pesticides. Thankfully, compost also reduces the need for those, because the microbes in your compost outcompete harmful bacteria or fungi that are out to attack your plants.
3. It supports the long-term health of the soil
The world has many pressing environmental issues to face in the 21st century. Among them is the declining health of our soil. Intensive modern agriculture depletes the fertility and structure of the soil.
We’re getting to the point where, in just a few harvests, we could face soil which can no longer support the crops we need to feed us. While growing plants take away from the soil, using compost gives back. It restores the fertility of the soil as the good bacteria multiply and spread.
Even if you can only use compost in your garden, you’re doing your bit to support the health of the soil for future generations.
Ways to use compost
1. Give your seeds a head start when you plant
Even if you’re only looking after potted plants, there are numerous ways to use composted humus in your garden.
If you enjoy watching plants grow from seeds or cuttings, try adding a few handfuls of compost to the bottom of your pot before you add the potting soil. The compost releases nutrients as the tiny plants put down their roots, giving the plants the best possible start in life.
While this method is most familiar to outdoor vegetable growers, it can be just as helpful for houseplants.
2. Feed and mulch your growing plants
You can easily replace artificial fertilizer with compost. Scatter a half-inch later around the bottom of your plants and water it into the soil. This ‘dressing’ of compost is especially beneficial to hungry plants like tomatoes, which may even need a monthly feed.
Scattering compost on top of the soil is also a good way of mulching your plants. It forms a protective layer that slows the rate at which the soil dries out. In the height of summer, this protects your plants from the stress of being soaked at watering time and then baked by the sun and helps them to maintain more constant conditions.
3. Refresh the soil of established plants
Even if you’re not growing new plants or expecting a crop, compost can be useful for the established pot plants you have in your home. For example, a large monstera won’t need frequent repotting but, even in the space of 12 months, it can exhaust the soil in its pot and suffer from nutrient deficiency.
Adding 1 -2 inches of compost to the top of the pot and working it into the soil underneath is a good way of giving your plant a boost while avoiding the stress of repotting.
The best time to refresh soil with compost is in the spring or autumn, as the microbes are most active in these conditions and can efficiently work their way through your plant pot.
4. Make potting soil
Finally, you can use your homemade compost to make potting soil and save yourself a trip to the store.
Mixing compost with sand or perlite produces a rich, well-aerated and well-draining soil which is ideal for most green leafy plants. This is not a soil to use with your cacti, succulents or orchids, which require specialist mixes, but it’s a great place to start for most common houseplants.
The ideal ratio to start with is 2 parts homemade compost to 1 part sand or perlite.
How does compost help the soil?
As we’ve already found out, compost is not only good for plants but great for the long-term health of the soil. It opens up the structure of the soil, giving more pockets for the air to circulate through. It also helps the soil to retain moisture.
In turn, the increased air circulation and more stable levels of moisture are good news for the worms and microbes in the soil. In well-composted soil, they can work efficiently to make the ground more fertile. When the ecosystem within the soil is happy, the soil stays rich and nutritious throughout the seasons.
Finally, once you’ve achieved this ideal balance of soil conditions, adding compost will ensure that the balance stays in place. Soil which is well structured is less likely to become exhausted because it will be able to hold onto nutrients that would otherwise be washed out by heavy rain.
How does compost affect plant growth?
If you use compost on your plants, you should notice a marked increase in their growth. This is because compost creates the ideal growing conditions for your plants. You’ll end up with soil that’s fertile, light, well-draining and disease-resistant, and what plant wouldn’t find that a comfortable place to put down roots?
As well as giving them the perfect environment, compost provides plants with the nutrients they need to grow new cells. This is the case whether you feed them with humus or compost tea from your bin. Their leaves will be able to grow more vigorously and they’ll have the energy to produce more flowers and fruits.
What’s more, adding compost to the soil keeps it slightly acidic. At around pH 6, it is easier for plants to absorb nutrients from the soil. Again, with just a simple dressing of compost on the top of your pots, you’ll be setting them up for their best year of growth yet.
Other benefits of composting
As if the environmental and plant growth benefits of composting weren’t enough, you’ll also benefit in a whole host of other ways. Whereas lots of the changes we make for the environment require you to alter your habits drastically or seek out a product that’s only available across town, composting allows you to keep your environmental conscience clear in a convenient way.
Firstly, composting at home saves money, because you’ll no longer need to buy ready-made compost or costly fertilizers. Although there’s an initial financial outlay in setting up your compost bin, it costs almost nothing to maintain and you’ll save money in the long run.
Secondly, you’ll save time. When you can recycle organic waste at home, you spare yourself a lot of chores. No more trips to the store to buy plant food, and no more trips to the landfill to dispose of garden waste.
Thirdly, you’ll find it easier to keep your kitchen (and garden, if you have one) tidy if you can put the waste you produce to good use.
Disadvantages of compost
Even after reading all about the environmental benefits of compost, you might still be skeptical. This is not entirely without reason.
The main disadvantage of composting at home is the commitment. Whether you compost indoors or outdoors, you’re making yourself responsible for an ecosystem and it’s up to you to manage it properly. The main responsibilities are keeping it moist (about as damp as a wrung-out sponge will do), well aired, and ensuring that the right balance of waste products go into the bin.
Many people also worry that compost bins smell and attract pests. Again, this is a valid concern, especially when composting inside, but if you make sure that you avoid adding certain food products such as dairy, eggs, meat, and bones to the bin, you drastically reduce the chances of a problem.
It’s understandable to become frustrated if you can’t throw all of your food waste into your new compost bin. Because the wrong proportion of wet and dry kitchen scraps will upset the balance of your microbes, you can sometimes end up throwing things in the landfill in spite of your compost bin. If this becomes a regular problem, you can look into whether your city has municipal composting bins alongside other recycling facilities, and consider using these temporarily.
A final disadvantage of composting is that it is more labor-intensive than using liquid feeds. Instead of watering a fertilizer into the ground, you have to carry it in spades and dig it into the ground. Even if you’ve only got a few pots on your windowsill, composting is a much messier process than using a liquid feed.
In spite of the clear benefits, very few of us compost now. This might be because of misconceptions about the effort it takes, or simply not knowing where to start but, in truth, a composting routine is easy, quick and cheap to set up. What’s more, it’s easy to learn this new skill online and to find like-minded people to ask for tips on your way to success.
If you compost, not only do you invest in the immediate health of your plants, you give something back to the soil and do something towards ensuring that our ground stays healthy for many generations to come. Although it requires some thought, the environmental benefits of composting at home far outweigh the teething problems you might have when you set up your bin for the first time.