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.
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)
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:
- In-depth compost guide for beginners (actually an Australian government publication)
- Composting Connection website
- Chemistry lesson on composting from Washington State University
Do you recycle or compost? Leave a comment below and tell us your thoughts about it.