March 8, 2011

Composting: A rind is a terrible thing to waste

One of the things I got to talk about at the Portland Home & Garden show was compost. That lovely dark earthy stuff that helps your plants & soil be healthy. Making compost is one of the neatest magic tricks there are.

1. Put your kitchen scraps in a pile.
2. Add some dried leaves or cut grass from the yard.
3. Make sure it’s moist – not wet, not dry, but moist.
4. Mix it up a bit.
5. Wait.

That’s pretty much it.

You can make the process as complicated as you want. You can measure out exact amounts of greens (the kitchen scraps & green yard waste), browns (the dried yard waste, such as leaves & cut grass) and water, and be absolutely anal-retentive about how often you mix the pile. While cutting your kitchen scraps and yard waste into small pieces helps the process along (more surface area for the compost critters to feed on), you can be excessively fussy about not just chopping up your potato peels and carrots tops and eggshells but you can pulverize them into sludge with your food processor, if you really want. You can even add composting activators that will hasten the process further. If this is you, I say go for it. Everyone’s gotta have a hobby, and this is as good as any to have. Heck, entire online forums are dedicated to the topic.

You can simplify the process even further. Simplest of all: a pile of kitchen scraps on their own will eventually decompose. They might take a while, but honestly, Nature will find a way. Adding the dried leaves or cut grass will help it decompose faster as well as help keep the smell down (the carbon from the dried materials helps take care of the smell). Making sure the pile stays moist will help it decompose faster than either drowning or not watering the pile (the moisture is necessary for the life of the critters in your compost pile). Mixing the materials through the pile will help it decompose faster than just letting everything sit and compact (oxygen is also necessary for the life of the critters in your pile), which of course you can do with a hand-held device designed specifically for your bin or you can invest in one of those giant rotating composting bins. Some people choose to do a three-part composting method where they put all their greens into a bin and let it rot for a while. Then they move that pile to another bin, add some browns, mix it up and let it rot for a while. Then they move it all to a third bin, mix it around, and let it rot some more until it’s ready for use.

Me, I’m fairly lazy. My own compost pile is a mix. I try to chop up my kitchen scraps, and sometimes I remember to add dried leaves to the pile. I keep it all in an Earth Machine bin I bought from the city, partly to keep out rodents & other local wildlife, and partly just to keep the pile, um, piled up. Sometimes I remember to mix it up. Mostly I let it sit and do its thing. I add some water periodically in the summer during the dry stretches. That’s about it. I dig out the useful stuff from the bottom and mix it into the raised beds as we build them, or tuck in a large spoonful as I put a plant start into the ground. Every now and then I’ll pick up a bag of coffee grounds from Starbucks and mix that into the compost pile (and sometimes apply it directly to the ground around the acid-loving plants like the blueberries and huckleberries). I’m starting to get better about crushing my eggshells for the calcium. But it’s really more about finding some way of dealing with my eggshells in a useful manner instead of putting them in the landfill (some folks pay top dollar for bonemeal soil amendments). I also add a handful of soil a couple of times a year to reintroduce the useful critters to the compost pile. My compost pile takes longer to break down because I don’t usually remember to add enough browns. One of my goals for the garden this year is to remember more browns, and remember to turn the pile more often.

You’re providing food and water (and making sure there’s air) for bacteria, mycorrizhae, worms and a whole host of bugs. They eat this food and make poop casting.

Why do we care about composting?

-> it helps take yard debris and kitchen waste out of the landfills. Yard debris and kitchen waste make up as much as 30% of the waste stream!

-> it helps reduce the need for fertilizers and pest control products. Fewer chemicals in my yard means for safer eating of the edible plants, and fewer chemicals on the grass we and our cats walk on (which means we’re not tracking those chemicals into the house either!). It also means fewer chemicals running off into our waterways

-> it helps amend the soil. In my area, this is important – I’ve got packed clay with river rocks. Adding the organic material helps loosen the soil, which means my plants can develop better root systems, which makes for healthier plants.

-> do I really need to mention the cost-savings? If I’m making my own soil amendment and plant food out of my yard & kitchen waste, then I’m not buying soil amendment and plant food. Dollars in my pocket!

Consider reading:
Guide to what goes in, what stays out of the compost pile
Make a simple compost bin – video
Mother Earth News: Compost made easy
Basic composting info, including composing demonstration sites and where to get an Earth Machine bin in Portland, OR

If you *really* want to geek out about composting (and I support geekiness in all its forms), check out the microbiology involved in the process:
Soil Foodweb
Mother Nature’s Farms, Inc: Compost Microbiology

1 comment:

  1. Such an interesting article and it's wonderful to read this hon. Thanks so much for sharing and for the lovely comment on my blog.
    Have a wonderful day!