Want to Start Composting? Cincinnati's Civic Garden Center Took Us on a How-To Walk-Through

On a recent visit to the Civic Garden Center, Kylie Johnson — CGC's Green Learning Station coordinator — met me at the nonprofit's compost corner, tucked away in Avondale and surrounded by lush foliage. "With our mission being ‘building community through gardening, education and stewardship,’ " Johnson says,  "composting fits in perfectly with who we are and what we do." Among other programming — like community gardening, hands-on horticulture and environmental education for youth — the urban green haven hosts composting classes aimed at varying ages and expertise levels. But why compost?

“With over 7 billion people on the planet and that number growing every day, we need to be more mindful about how we manage our waste streams," Johnson says. "Composting is a simple solution to divert large portions of household and business waste from landfills."

"Not only does composting keep waste out of the landfills that are running out of space and contributing to climate change," Johnson continues, "it also creates a nutrient rich soil amendment that improves and restores soil structure and fertility.”

Americans throw out a staggering amount of food. To be more exact, an estimated 52.4 million tons end up in landfills each year, according to the 2018 U.S. Food Waste Investment Report. And 16 percent of all methane emissions — a greenhouse gas that Johnson says is 25 times more powerful at trapping heat than Carbon Dioxide — are from organic materials that are buried and therefore can't decompose in landfills, the third largest emitter of the gas. (Certain types of bacteria thrive without oxygen and create methane, which is released from the ground.) Composting is just one way to reduce that footprint. CGC offers hands-on, immersive field trips for grades K-6 and 7-12. There, kids can learn about composting by digging in themselves. Basic classes geared toward adults are also offered. Come August 1, the center will kick-off their 4-day Master Composting class, which will teach you all the dirty details of soil science, varying composting methods and how to share your newly-found knowledge with your community. The classes are spread throughout August — the 1st, 8th, 15th and 22nd — and take place from 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Registration is $45.  For more info, visit civicgardencenter.org.  Locally — if you don't have the space or ability to compost in your own backyard — there are a few options: Northside Farmer's Market offers a drop-off service; and Better Bin Compost Company serves the East Side, Over-the-Rhine and Northside areas with a weekly pick-up service; a Go Zero Services. Johnson says they also partnered with Hamilton County Recycling and Go Zero — the latter offers a curbside service — for a three-month community-wide food waste pilot program. Click through for a lowdown on how composting works.
Photos by Holden Mathis

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Kylie Johnson, the Green Learning Station coordinator, helps teach several classes, including varying levels of composting instruction.
Holden Mathis

Kylie Johnson, the Green Learning Station coordinator, helps teach several classes, including varying levels of composting instruction.

Johnson notes that this is a traditional three-bin compost. "If you have a lot of space in your backyard, I would highly recommend having a system like this because it’s the easiest to maintain and control," she says. "As you can see, there’s different stages of composting happening right now."
Holden Mathis

Johnson notes that this is a traditional three-bin compost. "If you have a lot of space in your backyard, I would highly recommend having a system like this because it’s the easiest to maintain and control," she says. "As you can see, there’s different stages of composting happening right now."

Signs near the composting bins instruct onlookers on how the process works.
Holden Mathis

Signs near the composting bins instruct onlookers on how the process works.

The first bin contains waste in the active stage of composting. In this stage, more plant material is present. According to Johnson, for an ideal mixture you'll want 75 percent of the mix to be brown and dry — i.e., twigs, leaves, shredded paper, etc. — and 25 percent to be green and wet, aka nitrogen-heavy items like grass clippings, pulled plants and fruit and veggie scraps. “With that ideal combination of materials, you won’t have any smell," Johnson says. "I know with compost there’s this big stigma of ‘Oh, it’s going to smell bad.’ But if you’re doing it right, you will have no smell.’”
Holden Mathis

The first bin contains waste in the active stage of composting. In this stage, more plant material is present. According to Johnson, for an ideal mixture you'll want 75 percent of the mix to be brown and dry — i.e., twigs, leaves, shredded paper, etc. — and 25 percent to be green and wet, aka nitrogen-heavy items like grass clippings, pulled plants and fruit and veggie scraps. “With that ideal combination of materials, you won’t have any smell," Johnson says. "I know with compost there’s this big stigma of ‘Oh, it’s going to smell bad.’ But if you’re doing it right, you will have no smell.’”

The pile is stirred one to two times per week to help the material within break down. "We can see a nice mix of browns versus green," Johnson says of the pile. "At some point, it will get to a certain level and we’ll decide to stop adding material to the bin."
Holden Mathis

The pile is stirred one to two times per week to help the material within break down. "We can see a nice mix of browns versus green," Johnson says of the pile. "At some point, it will get to a certain level and we’ll decide to stop adding material to the bin."

Other elements to look out for include ensuring the piles have access to enough oxygen. Open-air bins allow fungi, bacteria and invertebrates — or, as Johnson calls them, "FBI' — to get into the piles and work their magic. The smaller the material is, the faster it will break down — so make sure to tear items like twigs and paper into bits.
Holden Mathis

Other elements to look out for include ensuring the piles have access to enough oxygen. Open-air bins allow fungi, bacteria and invertebrates — or, as Johnson calls them, "FBI' — to get into the piles and work their magic. The smaller the material is, the faster it will break down — so make sure to tear items like twigs and paper into bits.

Once material is partially broken down it is moved to the second bin; make sure to keep new waste out.
Holden Mathis

Once material is partially broken down it is moved to the second bin; make sure to keep new waste out.

The final bin contains nearly-finished compost, which has a dark color to it. At this point, Johnson says the next step is to take a compost sifter and a wheelbarrow to make sure the soil is finely-coarse and garden-ready.
Holden Mathis

The final bin contains nearly-finished compost, which has a dark color to it. At this point, Johnson says the next step is to take a compost sifter and a wheelbarrow to make sure the soil is finely-coarse and garden-ready.

“If you were to pick it up, it feels about as wet as a rung out sponge," Johnson says. "It has a nice smell to it though — that humus smell — so that you know that it’s ready to go on the garden."
Holden Mathis

“If you were to pick it up, it feels about as wet as a rung out sponge," Johnson says. "It has a nice smell to it though — that humus smell — so that you know that it’s ready to go on the garden."

Don't have the space for traditional compost bins? Another option is a closed bin compost system. It works similarly, but since it doesn't have access to the outside environment, microbes — the aforementioned FBI — need to be added in. ”One teaspoon of soil has more micro-organisms in it than there are people on the planet," Johnson says, "so that’s pretty incredible to show you just how active our soil and compost ecosystem is within there.”
Holden Mathis

Don't have the space for traditional compost bins? Another option is a closed bin compost system. It works similarly, but since it doesn't have access to the outside environment, microbes — the aforementioned FBI — need to be added in. ”One teaspoon of soil has more micro-organisms in it than there are people on the planet," Johnson says, "so that’s pretty incredible to show you just how active our soil and compost ecosystem is within there.”