Monday, November 19, 2012

Rethinking Composting

Apparently, having a baby changes things...shocking, I know.  I am finally giving in and searching Craigslist for one of those big, black plastic compost tumblers.  Turns out, I am not likely to actually take my compost scraps to the heap in the garden when I have to balance a baby on the other hip and hike all the way out there.

So I am streamlining and putting the compost bin right by the chicken coop (just outside the back door...and already part of my daily routine).  This way, when I take scraps out to the chickens, I can toss things that they won't eat (like that lettuce that had been decaying in the back of the fridge for who knows how long?) right in the compost.  Hooray!  However, having an open heap of decaying stuff right by the back door sounds like a fantastic way to invite disaster in the form of rodents and the dog, hence the quest for one of those compost tumber dealies.  Anyway, I've been brushing up on my composting how-to the last few days.

Composting might be one of my all-time favorite ideas.  Is there anything better than taking discarded yard waste and kitchen scraps, and turning them into rich, black garden gold?  Talk about trash to treasure!  You are taking things that would otherwise end up in the garbage, and transforming them into something you would otherwise have to buy!

The modern composting phenomenon began in the early 1900's, but it gained wide popularity in the 60's when modern organic farming methods were all the rage.  The organic gardening movement was a reaction to the increasing industrialization and commercialization of farming, especially the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.  But it would be crazy to say that composting was "invented" during this time.  It has been occurring naturally since the earth began!  However, the early "organic" gardeners gave us some very convenient guidelines to stick to to ensure composting success.

So, just how do you turn your trash into treasure?  Here are some keys to successful compost:

Brown vs. Green:  No, this is not a team competition.  We're talking "brown matter" and "green matter," the two groups of ingredients for compost.  Ideally, you want to shoot for a 50-50 mix of brown and green to make sure your compost has the right elements to heat up, decompose, and benefit your garden.  Here's a breakdown of each category:

   Brown Matter (which absorbs water and adds Carbon) includes:

  • yellow or dried leaves and other fibrous, dry yard waste (you probably want to avoid weeds with seeds, which can hang around in your compost if it doesn't heat up enough, and then be spread throughout your garden)
  • paper (shredded)
  • sawdust
  • straw
   Green Matter (which provides moisture and adds Nitrogen) includes:
  • fruit and vegetable scraps from the kitchen (you can also throw in coffee grounds and tea bags!)
  • green grass, leaves, or yard clippings (again, avoid any weeds that have seeded)
  • composted manure
If your Brown vs. Green ratio is not exactly 50-50, don't panic.  An overly-brown compost pile will take longer to decompose, and will do so at a lower temperature, and an overly-green compost pile will finish the job quickly at a higher temp.  We're just shooting for approximately half-and-half.

Moisture: The rule of thumb for compost is that it should be about as damp as a wrung-out sponge.  You probably don't want to actually grab and squeeze it to test it, so just estimate.   :)  In dry weather, you may have to water your compost, and if it's very wet,  you'll probably want to turn it extra-frequently to help it dry out a little.  Which leads us to...

Air:  Oxygen is the catalyst for the composting chemical reactions we want.  Yes, your compost can also decompose anaerobically, or "without air", but it will be stinky, slimy, and gooey in the process.  Think leftovers in the fridge too long.  To keep your compost aerobic ("with air"), you want to turn it (stir it up) regularly.  To be honest, some people recommend turning your compost every few days, and some say they turn it once...ever, and it still works out.  If you want the fastest composting possible, though, you will want to turn it often.  

Time: This really depends on the factors above.  Compost can be ready to use in the garden anywhere from 2-3 weeks (in a specially made compost-maker that you turn every other day) to 8-10 weeks in a normal heap on the ground that is turned every week.  If your compost is too brown or too dry, it can take much, much longer (picture a pile of straw...way too brown, way too dry, sticks around for a long, long time)

If you combine these elements, you will be well on your way to successful compost.  There are, however, a few things that can set you back:

  • Don't compost dog, cat, or human manure, as it may spread disease (chicken manure is great, though!)
  • Don't compost animal products (like meat, fat, and bones), which will most likely attract all kinds of pests to your heap!
Whether you choose to make a heap of compost out in the yard, build a bin for your compost, or even purchase a commercial compost bin, you will be on your way to reducing your trash and increasing your garden's health!  Happy composting!

If you'd like some more information, here are a few of the most helpful resources I've found:
Do you recycle or compost?  Leave a comment below and tell us your thoughts about it.


  1. Hi there, Danielle. Thank you very much for following Carole's Chatter. I am happily following you right back. Have a great week.

    1. Thanks for the follow. :) I had a great time poking around your site.

  2. Hi Danielle! Thanks so much for stopping by my blog, I'm a new follower now, and I answered your questions over there, too :)

    I absolutely recycle, I have a stack of blue bins 4 feet high in my kitchen that we use to sort our stuff! I composted for years too, with a regular old black bin, then I upgraded to a worm composter, which was fabulous and I had it for a few years out on my little apartment deck (and even for a while in my kitchen corner when it was cold!!)

    Everyone thought it was kind of gross that I had giant boxes of worms in my kitchen, but hey, I couldn't let the little guys freeze, right?

    Unfortunately I'm temporarily in an apartment now with no deck and no access to compost bins :( The consolation prize is a beautiful view of the lake nearby.

    I'd love it if you'd share this on my blog's link party, too! Waste Not Want Not Wednesday is a link up for sharing recipes and frugal/eco-friendly tips.

    1. Awesome! I am so glad to read about your worms in the kitchen - I have been rethinking a little and will probably go with a worm composter in our laundry room. I will come check out your link up right now.

  3. Just like you, I moved my compost bin (made out of clean pallets) to behind my coop so the chickens could "turn it" and add more fertilizer to it. Compost breaks up faster with the activity of the helpful hens. I also make my own kefir from original grains and localraw milk!! Come visit the flock and herd when you have a chance. We are in Northern Vermont:

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by, Janis! I am excited to read about your flock and herd.

  4. After living in the UK for 8 years, recycling and composting became routine for this Texas native. In fact, our village had a community compost site!

    When we moved back stateside, there was a fledgling recycling program in our small town and composting was virtually unheard of. But over the years, more and more people have begun to do both. Which reminds me, I need to get the recycling to the curb! Excuse me... :)

    Great article!

    1. Yes, I have heard that the UK is really good about encouraging people to compost, with some cities even having compost bins picked up like a trash service. That's wonderful that you town is gradually progressing. We have no services at our rural home, but it's fun to hear about all the nearby cities that do, like Eugene and Corvallis. And our rural location helps us be more mindful of what we use, since we have to haul it to the dump ourselves. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. I would like to invite you to join me at the Clever Chicks Blog Hop this week!

    I hope you can make it!
    Kathy Shea Mormino
    The Chicken Chick

  6. I have been recycling and composting for years. I love being able to turn trash into something useful!

    In addition to chicken manure, the waste of other vegetarian animals such as rabbits and gerbils can be composted--if you use a biodegradable litter such as paper shreds or ground-up corncobs. (I don't know how you would grind your own corncobs, but I used to buy that kind of litter when I had a rabbit.) Gerbils are so small that we didn't notice their effect on the garden, but rabbit manure definitely is a great fertilizer.


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