Ask Martha

Composting takes work, but it’s well worth it

As long as I can remember, composting has been a part of my life. When I was a child, my family kept a small bucket next to the kitchen sink where all food scraps (except meat or fat) were deposited. The bucket was emptied every day onto the compost heap at the back of the yard. My dad talked with excitement about the transformation of these scraps into “black gold,” a substance he said would revitalize his backyard gardens, adding nutrients back to the soil. This early inspiration instilled in me a set of organic-gardening practices and good habits for healthy soil and plants that I regularly employ.

In Bedford, N.Y., composting has become a serious business. When I took on the farm more than 10 years ago, I vowed to be as careful with waste as possible, to recycle as much as I possibly could, and to use as many natural materials in building and construction as we could manage.

I have certainly been helped in my composting endeavors by an angry Mother Nature, who for the past five years has sent devastating storms — hurricanes, a tornado, and a severe October ice storm — which have felled hundreds of trees and damaged many shrubs. None of the wood has gone to waste, however. Hardwood tree trunks have been milled into lumber boards for furniture and flooring. Limbs, roots, boughs, leaves, and needles have been ground, to greatly diminish the volume and jump-start the process of bacterial decomposition.


I have devoted a field at the farm to this operation: Useless boughs, branches, and stumps are stacked in one long mound; livestock manure is piled in another. Extra topsoil from any building excavation is saved in another pile, and weeds, plants, and other green matter are collected in yet another. Once a year, we hire the tub-grinder man to bring his equipment for three to five days to double-grind the wooden pieces. These are then combined with the two-, three-, or four-year-old piles of mulch to continue the decomposition process. Leaves and other vegetable matter are mixed into the manure pile, which is then covered with giant tarps to maintain a temperature of 126 to 141 degrees; the pile is also turned regularly and screened once it’s decomposed.

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In the past seven years, we have created a tremendous amount of “black gold.” My father would be proud. I love my compost, and the farm needs the compost, but I hope the change in weather patterns we have been experiencing is temporary, and bad storms go back to being a rare occurrence, not yearly or twice-yearly events.


For the home composter, a diverse collection of ingredients creates the best, most nutrient-rich compost. Aim for a ratio of one-third nitrogen (moist green materials) to two-thirds carbon (dried brown or paper materials) to obtain an optimal bacterial decomposition.

1. Paper Shred or tear sheets of newspaper to allow plenty of aeration, so that the beneficial organisms can thrive. Also feel free to use the contents of your security shredder, as long as you remove bits of plastic or foil.

2. Vegetable Discards Wilted vegetables from the refrigerator are a good addition.


3. Kitchen Waste Rinds, peelings, leftovers, and bread from the kitchen are very active decomposers. Egg shells will also degrade but not as completely. Avoid adding dairy, animal fat, or meat to the pile, since they will attract vermin.

4. Coffee and Tea Grounds from the morning coffeepot or tea bags add important nitrogen to the mix.

5. Plants Use only healthy dried leaves and stems from the lawn and garden. Discard any diseased leaves or those near plants infested with pests; they may carry insect eggs. Add unwanted but healthy cuttings from houseplants.

Adapted from Martha Stewart Living.