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Kansas Composting 101: A Beginner's Guide to Backyard

Composting in the Sunflower State

What is Composting?

Composting is the biological decomposition of organic waste, such as food or plant materials. These organic materials can be broken down by bacteria, fungi, worms, and other organisms. Aerobic composting happens as long as there is the presence of oxygen. Compost energizes the soil and the life forms within it, helping plants withstand common diseases, and giving fruits and vegetables enhanced flavors and nutrition.

Tip: In Kansas, the term "composting" does not apply to manure piles, whether turned or not, nor to yard waste directly applied to agricultural land. (K.A.R. 28-29-3)

Why start composting?

There are many benefits to composting; the first is that it reduces the volume of the waste stream. Organic material can't break down in landfills due to the lack of oxygen. Without the oxygen-rich conditions, the rotting material releases methane gas, which is a loss of carbon if not captured and used as fuel. Instead, when the organic material such as vegetable scraps or a bouquet of wilting flowers is composted, it can be broken down and rebirthed into a soil enhancer - which is good for the environment, your garden, and you!

Here's how compost enhances your soil:

  • Stores nitrogen and releases it when plants need it most!
  • Works well as a mulch to keep moisture and suppress weed growth.
  • Enables better water infiltration into the soil.
  • Loosens tight soils, preventing erosion and the baking effect of the sun.
  • Helps destroy unwanted pathogens.
  • Kills some of the weed seeds.
  • Improves quality of water by breaking down pollutants.
  • Stimulates better growth of plant roots.

What types of composting are there?

Traditional Composting

Composting is very easy to do in your backyard or even in an apartment complex. But first, you need to determine what kind of composting process works best for you. If you plan on composting yard waste such as grass clippings, leaves, twigs, branches, small wood chips, and garden waste, you can get by with a pile on the bare ground. But if you are worried about how your compost pile will look or smell, or if you plan on composting kitchen scraps, a closed compost bin is the way to go.

There are several types of closed compost bins, including ones that you can rotate in a barrel-like casing. These help create compost at a quicker rate. Compost bins don't have to be fancy; in fact, you can find tutorials on how to make one yourself! Closed compost bins enjoy an occasional stirring and moisture addition, but overall are low maintenance and will keep wildlife at bay. Check out this short video from the K-State Research and Extension Office:

Check out this short video from the K-State Research and Extension Office:



Vermicomposting

Vermicomposting isn't the most attractive name, but it just might be one of the coolest ways to compost. It involves a bunch of WoRmS! Red wigglers, to be exact. Vermicomposting is mainly an indoor way to compost because it needs a cool dark space for the worms to their magic. All you need is a bin (with some air holes of course), some bedding such as shredded newspaper, moisture (lightly damp paper is a very hospitable bed for your worms), and your table scraps! The worms will eat away at the food and produce castings, or like gardeners, refer to it...black gold! However, worms don't prefer citrus, bones or meat.

Check out this short TED-Ed video on how vermicomposting works!



The Green Cone

Another method of composting is done in the ground. Up to ten pounds of kitchen scraps can be deposited into a Green Cone, without the fear of attracting rodents. Unlike other compost methods, the Green Cone can handle meat and dairy products. The Green Cone is a worm feeder. It does not compost yard wastes. You won't get any compost out of a Green Cone, but it's an excellent method to consume kitchen wastes if you want very little maintenance.

Check out this video on the Green Cone:




Bokashi Method

If you are interested in a more advanced method of composting, you can check out the Bokashi Method. The Bokashi Method is an anaerobic composting method that started in Japan. It's a great method for those looking to compost citrus, meat, bones, dairy, and bread products.

Learn more about the Bokashi Method: https://www.planetnatural.com/composting-101/indoor-composting/bokashi-composting/

How can I start composting?

After you have determined the type of composting that works best for your lifestyle, the next thing to do is gather supplies. If you want a closed compost bin, you can purchase one or make it yourself. Vermicomposting will need a medium size bin and a space in your home that remains at a suitable room temperature. The Green Cone and a Bokashi starter kit can also be purchased, or similar products utilized at home!

Begin gathering scraps to compost! There are two types of composting materials:

  • Greens - are quick to rot and provide nitrogen and moisture to the pile. This includes things like food scraps, coffee grounds, old flowers, grass clippings, weeds and tea bags.
  • Browns- are slower to rot but provide fiber and carbon to allow air pockets to form in the compost. This includes things like cardboard, twigs, hedge clippings, leaves, wood chips, and shredded paper.

Check out this quick guide for building a good compost pile! Download

While there are tons of things you can be composting, there are several things you should NOT be putting in your compost pile. These include meat and dairy products which attract unwanted animals, cooking oils, bread products (yeast kills good compost bacteria and smells), cat and dog feces, and products soiled with human manure (to avoid any disease). With expertise, these special items can be utilized, but they take special care and training. Green Cones and Bokashi can handle most food wastes, including fats, bones, meats and milk.

Once you start composting, it takes little maintenance to keep it up. It's recommended that you stir or turn your compost pile once a week, this helps air get into the compost and break down quickly. Or if you don't turn your pile, compost will still happen, just not as fast. Additionally, you may need to add moisture to your pile to keep it damp (but not soggy).

When is composting finished?

The level of finishing can depend on intended use of the compost. But generally, a backyard composter likes to see a final product that is fairly dark, broken down to bear little resemblance to the original materials that were composted, and smells "earthy." Part of the finishing compost means providing a curing time frame of one to two months after active composting. Curing allows for stabilization of the composting materials.

What do I do with the compost?

Compost can be used as mulch or as a soil enhancer in the garden. Use it to add nutrients and carbon to your lawn. Apply it thinly around bushes and under the drip lines of trees.

What are the limits of "Backyard Composting" in Kansas?

No approval, registration, or permit is needed for "Backyard Composting" in Kansas. As long as it meets the following definition. Backyard composting refers to a composting operation that does not distribute the finished compost for use-off site and that meets one of the following conditions.

  • The materials are all compostable and are generated by no more than four single residences or, the equivalent of four single residences.
  • The materials being composted consists entirely of yard waste, and the volume of the material being composted is less than 10 cubic yards.

If a composting operation exceeds "backyard" limits then a Composting Registration is needed for operations less than 1/2 acre in size, or a Composting Permit for those over 1/2 acre.

Tip: Kansas Laws Regarding Composting: http://www.kdheks.gov/waste/about_composting.html

Community Resources

Did you know that many communities offer ways to help get you started composting in your very own backyard? Shawnee County offers free composting bins to county residents who pledge an effort to reduce organic waste. Check with your county of city to see if they provide free composting bins.

For Shawnee County Residents: https://www.snco.us/sw/composting.asp

Not able to start a compost pile? Learn about Mow & Go, an easy environmentally friendly way to dispose of your leaves and grass clippings. Many communities offer places to drop off yard waste and those holiday trees!
Want to learn more about composting?

Helpful Websites

K-State Research and Extension Office: https://www.centralkansas.k-state.edu/lawn-garden/composting.html

Johnson County: https://www.jocogov.org/dept/health-and-environment/environment/recycling/yard-waste-and-composting

Helpful Books!

  • The Rodale Book of Composting, Easy Methods for Every Gardener - Grace Gershuny, Deborah L. Martin
  • Worms Eat My Garbage - Mary Appelhof
  • Home Composting Made Easy - C. Forrest, PHD and Tricia Clark McDowell