Field Notes

April 17, 2019

How to Attract the FBI to your Decay Scene

By Abby Phinney, communication specialist at the Lilly Center

Did you know that composting is a way to protect your lake? It’s also a natural way to enrich your garden. The organic matter found in compost provides structure to the soil, captures water for roots to soak up, and resists compaction and erosion. It gives plants the nutrients they need to grow.

Unfortunately, compost is typically associated with a smelly, steaming pile of old kitchen scraps and weeds hidden in a forgotten corner of the yard. When done correctly, compost can be a much classier (and much more useful) means to a robust harvest of fruits and vegetables!

There are four key categories to a healthy compost pile:

  1. 25-50% Browns: Carbons, such as leaves, shredded paper or paper towel
  2. 50-75% Greens: Kitchen scraps, grass and plant clippings
  3. Air: You’ll need to turn your compost pile once per week
  4. Water: And keep it damp, like a wrung-out sponge

The key, says Sarah Baier, our education program specialist, is to “attract the FBI to your decay scene.” A healthy compost will be home to fungus, good bacteria and insects. These little workers will digest the browns and greens, and infuse the pile with the nutrients and microbes that plants need.

Ideally, your compost pile will be built in layers, beginning and ending with the browns. If you’re going to add anything to a compost pile, Sarah says, add a little extra of the browns. But, she cautions, “If the pile is dry, add greens. You want the pile to feel hot and smell like fresh soil.” The carbon in the browns will help the compost stay less wet, and help achieve the perfect pH balance. “A good balance of browns and greens will keep the compost cooking, and keep those nutrients and microbes alive,” Sarah added.

A few more tips and tricks:

  • If you keep your pile enclosed, make sure air and rain can still reach it. A fully enclosed compost pile won’t be useful to your garden.
  • Keep a closed container in your kitchen for dumping scraps. Compost piles are vegetarians — no meat scraps or bones are allowed, unless you want to attract snakes and other critters!
  • Don’t want to stab a shovel into your compost pile? Sarah suggests using a wingdigger.

So how does all this help your lake? Most non-organic fertilizers contain high amounts of phosphorus, the catalysts for algae blooms and other lake-related problems. When it rains, those nutrients are washed off your property and end up in local waterways. By using compost (or a store-bought organic fertilizer) you’re actually helping prevent algae blooms. Give it a try this spring, and let us know how it goes!