Sunday, February 22, 2009

Compost Primer

I put some kitchen scraps in my compost bin yesterday and found it full. It's the middle of a cold, snowy winter where I live, so there's not much chance that it will break down any time soon. Looks like I may need another bin. Cool.

Approximately 30% of an average American household's garbage is made up of compostable material. In landfills, this organic matter breaks down and combines with other toxic materials that can leach into groundwater and streams. So why not keep it out of landfills and turn it in to soil for your gardens?

I have two composting operations: (1) yard and garden waste (sticks, pine needles, leaves, vines) that I just throw in a big pile in the snow-free seasons, and (2) kitchen waste that I put in an outside bin year round to help keep the raccoons (and my dogs) from scavenging.

The yard waste pile has two sides -- one side with new material and one side of already composted soil. In any given year, I use up the soil side and cover it with new waste in the fall By the next spring, the other side has usually generated enough new soil for my gardens. It's just a flip flopping of the piles from year to year. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.

Since I don't really pay much attention to the rules of composting -- layering, soaking, turning -- my food bin requires a little more patience. I do turn it with a pitchfork occasionally, but it takes a little longer to break down. When it's ready, I harvest the wet, clumpy soil through a door in the bottom of the bin and put it in the outside pile to help it dry out and mix in with the outdoor recipe for a more balanced soil. (There's no science behind this idea...I just think it sounds good.)

I use a few products that help make composting a little easier, both from the Gardner's Supply Company: In the spring, I pour some Compost Starter on the outdoor piles and in the bin just to get things moving after a cold winter. In the winter, I use biodegradable BioBags in my under-the-sink kitchen bin. When a bag gets full of scraps, we just tie it up and put it outside on the porch for a time when someone has their boots on and wants to venture out to the compost bin. (In the summer, we usually do an evening run out there every day or two).

A few other tips, techniques, and topics of wonder:

  • I never put any waste containing fat in the compost; that attracts animals.
  • Grass clippings are like vitamins in a compost pile.
  • I also have the advantage of lots of fat-free chicken poo for my piles. It's also like vitamins.
  • For some reason, my compost (both in the kitchen and outside) doesn't smell. I think it's because I keep the fat out.
  • I buy unbleached and unscented napkins and paper towels, and we compost them too.
  • I sometimes compost paper plates, but only if they're not greasy.
  • We haven't used an in-sink garbage disposal for five years, and I don't miss it.
  • I think a lot of communities or waste services offer deals on compost bins.
  • Summer rains give my piles all the moisture they need.
  • I have a pretty prolific garden in the summer!
  • My garbage is 30% lighter!
Altogether, composting is really easy. If you're not really into "tending" to a compost pile (like I'm not), then it only requires a little attention and a lot of patience (like at least six months before you'll get dirt; probably a full season for really nice dirt). The end result is way worth the effort. You'll always have a pile of rich, beautiful, homemade soil on hand, and you'll have helped save the world in your own backyard. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.

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  1. Show off! Our garden is pretty sad. But we also compost because the German waste company collects it separately and, as I understand it, puts it in a big stinky warehouse that has ceiling collectors to harvest the methane gas and turn it into electicity. Or something like that. Anyway it's legally required to compost in some parts of Munich, maybe because Germany doesn't have a Grand Canyon to throw the trash in when they run out of room.

  2. I try to compost here in Alaska, and while the indoor bin (in heated garage) works well, the outdoor bin is not exactly... thriving. Last year I invested in a big contraption (made in Israel from a heavy recycled plastic), and I was hoping it would help with the solar heating and keep the critters out. But alas, last summer it never got warm enough, and a black bear tried to get into it. And i never did anything except vegetable scraps (No fats!!!) Now I only do grass & leaves...

    But I'm not ready to give up -- I have this dream of running a hose from the dryer-exhaust to the bin, but then I hardly use the dryer in the summer... Plus I'd have to build a steel/cement enclosure if I put food scraps in-- better just stick to the garage!...