As much as half the material that makes its way to Big Island landfills is organic matter that we could instead use to improve our yards and gardens. The rocky soils of Hawaii benefit from the incorporation of organic nutrients. For those of us living in the drier regions of Hawaii Island, compost aids in the retention of valuable moisture. For healthier plants and a more beautiful garden, put your organic waste to use.
How to Make a Simple Compost Pile
- Find a convenient spot at least 3-feet long and 3-feet wide.
- Collect green matter and brown matter to be added in layers. If you want to use your compost relatively soon, avoid materials that resist decomposition such as large twigs or branches and focus on materials such as fruit and vegetable scraps, leaves and grass clippings. The smaller the bits of material, the faster it will decompose.
- For the first layer, stack six inches of small branches, twigs and dry leaves on the ground and then place six inches of fruit and vegetable scraps or similar material on top.
- Continue alternating layers of brown and green waste to achieve a good balance of nutrients.
- You can incorporate finished compost, organic chicken manure, well-rinsed seaweed, or compost starter enzymes available at most garden supply stores to speed up decomposition.
- Repeat the layering process until the pile is at least one cubic yard in size.
- Cover the pile with a few inches of dry material such as old compost or dry grass clippings to minimize fly activity.
Benefits of balancing green and brown organic matter
As your compost pile evolves, strive to maintain a balance of green and brown matter as the former is rich in nitrogen and the latter is rich in carbon. Combining these two forms of organic waste creates a nutrient-rich compost.
Green matter includes fresh grass clippings, fruit and vegetable scraps and plant clippings. I keep a pot with a lid on my counter and take it out to my compost pile once or twice a week.
Brown matter includes wood chips, sawdust, fibrous grasses and dry leaves. Here I have included shredded junk mail (nothing coated in plastic or laminated), shredded newspaper, dry grass clippings and hay.
What compost materials should I avoid?
Some materials are ideal for composting whereas others are best to avoid. As a general rule don’t incorporate materials into your compost pile that (a) can create odor problems and attract pests, (b) contain diseases, parasites, bacteria and viruses, or (c) contain unwanted chemicals that will kill bacteria or harm your yard. Avoid chemically treated woods. Meat and dairy products are leading causes of odors and attract mongoose, rats, mice, and bugs. Below are some guidelines for good and not-so-good composting materials.
Good for Compost
- Fruits and vegetables
- Coffee grounds and filters
- Tea bags
- Nut shells
- Shredded newspaper
- Yard trimmings
- Grass clippings
- Hay and straw
- Wood chips
- Cotton and Wool Rags
- Hair and fur
- Fireplace ashes
Bad for Compost
- Dairy products such as butter, milk, yogurt, eggs, etc.
- Fats, grease, lard or oils
- Meat or fish bones and scraps.
- Glossy paper, stickers and labels.
- Yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides
- Diseased or insect-ridden plant material
- Treated wood
- Pet waste or soiled cat litter
How soon can I use my compost?
It may be a few months before your compost is ready to be incorporated into your garden. The time it takes to create usable compost depends on the materials you include, the size pieces of the matter, the moisture content and outside temperatures. Your compost is ready to use when it is dark in color, loose and crumbly, and has no strong or unpleasant odor. Because I want to use my compost sooner rather than later, I strive to include more finely chopped or shredded materials that decompose relatively quickly.
What about worms?
Worms are highly efficient at converting food scraps into nutrient-dense compost! Worm castings contain nitrogen, phosphorus and other valuable nutrients and bond soil particles together, helping to retain moisture. A teaspoon of pure worm castings can contain more than six billion microbes which help your plants and aid in warding off bad bugs and funguses. Worms most often used for composting, and which are available here on the Big Island, are Red Wigglers. They have a healthy appetite, reproduce quickly, and are capable of eating more than half their own weight in food every day. When I compost with worms, I include a higher proportion of green matter and less brown matter, and I ensure my compost pile remains properly moist. If you are interested in vermiposting, check out the guide produced by Big Island Worms Vermipost in 3 Easy Steps.
Some Big Island Composting Resources
Below are some composting organizations on the Big Island. If you know of others I should mention here, be sure and drop me a note.
- Big Island Worms. A local business that provides guidance and products for those interested in vermiposting. At the time this article is being written they sell a 1/2 pound of compost worms for $50. Supplies are limited so pre-order your wrigglers.
- Compost Hawaii. A curbside compost collection service. Members use buckets provided by Compost Hawaii to collect organic waste. Compost Hawaii picks it up weekly and transports it one of their compost sites where it’s transformed into a super-rich soil amendment. They have drop sites where members can swap their own buckets on their own schedule. Members earn credit for finished compost they can either use at home or donate to school and community garden projects. At the time this article is being written, their services run $25 / month with a free two-week trial and $15 sign-up fee.
- Recycle Hawaii. A non-profit community educational organization serving the residents and businesses of Hawaii Island.
Below are some composting reference materials.
- How to Start a Compost Pile for Beginners A fact-filled article that explains how composting works, the difference between aerobic and anaerobic composting and which addresses common composting problems and solutions.
- Grow Your Own Compost A CTAHR publication that discusses common composting issues and remedies.
- Small-Scale Vermiposting A CTAHR publication that discusses the basics of worm composting.