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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

Composting helps paint your yard ‘green’

Media Contact: Todd McLeish, 401-874-7892

KINGSTON, R.I. – September 13, 2010 – The approach of autumn – with the garden harvest in full swing and the falling leaves in the not-too-distant future -- is an ideal time to consider starting a compost pile. And according to Sejal Lanterman, who directs the URI Master Composter and Recycler Program, it’s a lot easier than you may think.

Composting is an excellent way to keep organic waste out of landfills, and it’s a fun way of turning your food scraps, leaves and grass clippings into useful, healthy soil for the garden.

“The art of composting,” said Lanterman, “is learning to blend the right materials. The compost recipe is a ratio of three parts brown (dead leaves, shredded newspaper, straw) to one part green (food scraps, grass clippings). Because your pile needs more browns than greens, fall is a great time to get started because of the abundance of leaves.”

She recommends starting out by filling your compost bin with brown materials and then adding in layers of greens, including fruit and vegetable scraps and coffee grinds but avoiding meats, dairy products, and cooked foods with sauces. The pile will quickly settle, making it easy to regularly add to it. It should maintain the consistency of a damp sponge, so the pile may need to be watered occasionally so it doesn’t dry out.

“And if it gets too wet and sludgy, just add more browns,” Lanterman said.

She warns compost beginners to be patient, especially through the cold winter months when the decomposition process slows considerably.

“Compost is like a fine wine or an aged cheese,” she said. “It takes time. But if you start now, by late spring you should have some nice compost to add to your garden.”

Most of the action in a compost pile happens at its central core, where microbes break down the materials in the pile and generate temperatures of 90 to 160 degrees.

Because the microbes need oxygen to keep working, Lanterman recommends stabbing your compost pile a few times with a pitchfork or aeration tool every week, and then every couple of months turn the pile over so the materials on the outside are moved to the middle.

For urban dwellers or those looking for even more compost fun, try composting with worms in a bin in your house. Lanterman maintains a bin of worms in her office in the Mallon Outreach Center and in her kitchen at home. Start by filling a bin with shredded newspapers, add a cup of soil, a pound of red wiggler worms (available for purchase online) and food scraps, and store the bin in a dark, cool place. The worms eat the food scraps and deposit the nutrients in castings that are excellent “soil amendments” for your indoor and outdoor plants.

“Worms are also a great pet for kids who are learning about decomposers in school,” Lanterman said. “And it gets kids to eat healthy; they want to feed the worms and they know they can only do that by eating fruits and vegetables and not by eating Doritos.”

For more information about composting at home, visit or contact Lanterman at or 401-874-4453. The next session of the Master Composter and Recycler Program begins Oct. 7.