So, you’ve reduced what you can, reused what you can, recycled what you can, but the salad trimmings seem to be staring at you accusingly. You can eliminate the guilt by composting, but is that hard? Fortunately, not necessarily.
The first thing to do is decide if you want to produce lovely, loamy, nutrient-rich compost to fertilize your plants and improve your soil. I’ve had a compost bin for over 20 years and I do nothing but add in my kitchen trimmings, dead floral arrangements, and occasionally some autumn leaves, and let nature take its course. The pile continues to decompose and shrink and I never use any of it. It doesn’t smell, and the fruit flies stay inside the cover and provide food for the lizards who lurk in it. So if you just want to avoid adding stuff to the landfill, it’s easy.
If, on the other hand, you want to use the stuff in the garden, you have a number of options. Compost that is ready to spread is dark-brown, crumbly, and smells like earth. This will eventually happen at the bottom of almost all compost heaps even if you do no more than I do. But if you want more timely production, then here are some tips.
- Locate the pile in the sun if possible as the added heat speeds up the breakdown.
- Include green and brown material. Greens are items like vegetable and fruit trimmings and the pansies you replaced with poppies — these are high in nitrogen. Browns are items like autumn leaves, the dead stems of perennials (but not woody stems), shredded newspaper — these are high in carbon.
- You can add greens and browns in layers or mix them as you add. Both are needed to even out moisture content and create air spaces.
- Cutting up stems into pieces a few inches long will speed up decomposition.
- Mix grass clippings with other green stuff or they pack down into a smothering layer.
- Don’t include any animal waste in the pile — no meat scraps, leftover eggs, cheese, or litter box offerings.
- You can include coffee grounds and tea leaves which may make the compost a bit more acidic, and rinsed, crushed egg shells which can add a bit of calcium (but take a long time to break down).
- Don’t let the heap dry out — rotting requires damp.
- Mixing the pile up with a fork every week or so to add some air to the material can speed things up—if the pile is too solid, decomposition will slow down and anaerobic processes will make it begin to smell bad.
- Forking a full bin into a new one helps to move outside material to the inside which makes for more even rotting. (But you can just make sure you mix greens and browns as you go, never do any other mixing and remove finished compost from the bottom of the pile as it becomes ready — slower and you get less all at once, but it’s easier.)
- Don’t include anything that is diseased or infested with pests — send that to the landfill.
- Sprinkling in a little soil every so often can add the bacteria needed to break down the stuff in the bin.
- Don’t include anything that has gone to seed. If you have a large compost heap, the internal temperature at the center will rise high enough to kill many seeds (decomposition releases some stored energy in the material as heat) but this is not likely to happen in the usual residential-sized compost bin.
What sort of compost bin is best? There are a lot of choices. Buy or build the bin that is best for you.
- You can just make a pile somewhere in the garden but the stuff on the sides tends to fall off so you get more of a pyramid than a loaf, and it’s too easy for animals to dig in. And the sides dry out rapidly.
- You can build a couple of square enclosures next to each other directly on the ground with posts and chicken wire, but again the outside of this sort of pile dries out quickly so you need to be diligent about dampening and turning.
- You can use large plastic trash cans, but you need to poke holes in the bottom and sides to provide air and good drainage.
- You can one buy of the many commercial compost bins available
- You can buy one that is a drum on a stand that can be turned with a crank to mix the contents often, which is easier than forking stuff to another bin and speeds up the process.
Take a look at offerings at local garden centers, and sites such as Gardener’s Supply Company (www.gardeners.com) to see some of the options. One good link to composting info is http://eartheasy.com/grow_compost.html.
Remember, stuff rots in the great outdoors under a lot of different conditions, as well as in my compost bin where I do nothing, so there is no one way that is best for you to make compost. Do what works given the time, energy, and patience you have.
For info on this and other gardening subjects, take a look at the Garden Club pages on the Sustainable Claremont website, www.sustainableclaremont.org. You can send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and check out the SC calendar for Garden Club meetings.
Demystifying Sustainability is an initiative of Sustainable Claremont (sustainableclaremont.org).