There are many, many ways to live a green life. And the great thing is you don’t have to do them all to contribute. Take one step at a time and before you know it, you’ll be the greenest person in your neighborhood. Your neighbors will be green with envy. A great place to start your green adventure is with composting.

What is composting?

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Composting is the process of allowing items that will naturally decompose to do so, thus reducing landfill waste and litter. Many items you throw into those plastic trash bags can be put into a compost pile and nature will gladly take care of them for you. Besides getting rid of waste in a natural, environmentally friendly way, composting can benefit you in other ways. One major advantage is gardening. Compost makes fantastic fertilizer to help you grow plants, fruits and vegetables. It also helps replace nutrients in the soil after your plants have used them up.

How do I get started?

The first step is to find a place to compost. This can often be difficult in and around the Baltimore area as real estate is a premium. Compost piles work well, but if you don’t have a secure place for it or if you are worried about runoff, then an alternate method would be to build or use a bin. Logs or pieces of wood can be used to make a square bin. Steel drums or old wine barrels or something along those lines can also be used. If you are really limited with space in your neighborhood, try to get your neighbors involved and find a spot for a community compost. Just make sure you educate everyone on what can go in it. A helpful tip: don’t make your compost too close to your house. Due to the fact that this pile is high in nutrients, warm and damp, often insects flourish and small animals like squirrels will investigate the scraps.

What do I put in it?

There are two main sources you need for a successful compost: nitrogen items and carbon items. Nitrogen items, or green items, activate the heat which is necessary for the microbial activity in decomposition. These items include things like young, healthy weeds, freshly fallen leaves during spring or summer (“green” leaves), grass cuttings, fruits, vegetables and plants. You can even use coffee grounds and tea leaves and bags. Carbon items, or brown items, include fall leaves (dead, “brown” leaves), dead plants and weeds, saw dust, cardboard, old and dead flowers, straw, hay or small animal bedding. A good ratio is about three parts brown items to one part green items. As long as your pile remains warm and is breaking things down, you have a good ratio. If it matches the temperature around it, add more green items.

It is also good to know that you can include some other items like paper towels, paper bags, torn-up, small pieces of cotton clothing, egg shells and human or animal hair. Use these things sparingly as they take longer to decompose.

Items you should not put in the compost include meat, fish, bones, plastic, synthetic fibers, oil, fat, pet or human feces (you can use herbivorous animal droppings like rabbit or horse), weeds that have gone to seed, diseased plants, diapers, glossy paper or magazines, coal and cat litter. Although things like bread, pasta, nuts and cooked foods will decompose, they take a long time and should also be avoided. Another good rule of thumb is if it will attract wild animals, like raccoons, it probably does not belong in a compost pile.

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How do I maintain it?

Make sure you layer or mix your green and brown items so they activate the decomposing process. Once a week, or once every other week, be sure to turn the pile. This entails using a pitch fork or shovel to mix the pile up, getting stuff from the bottom to the top and vice versa. The layers at the bottom will be your good compost for gardening. When you need some, harvest it from the bottom to use in your garden.

Be sure the compost remains moist and has access to oxygen. A successful pile needs all four parts: green items, brown items, water and oxygen.

How do I manage this in the Baltimore area?

A community compost is a great idea. This allows the whole neighborhood to get involved with living green and help each other. Allow everyone to contribute to the pile and use the compost in their garden if they would like. This helps with finding a location. A small wooded area or open field works nicely. It will keep the bugs and any smells away from the homes and gives everyone easy access. If space is really tight, think about using an old steel trash can or drum and just compost on a smaller scale. Just keep using the compost from the bottom of the can or drum in your garden or as fertilizer for your yard so you will continue to have enough space.

You can also search the internet for community gardens and find out if they are doing a compost pile. These shared gardens are great for growing plants and vegetables and many of them use a compost pile for natural nutrients in their garden soil. Ask friends or coworkers if they compost. You may be surprised how many places you can find!

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Tom Clocker is a freelance writer covering all things Baltimore. His work can be found on