The Art of Composting

6 Jul

A little while ago a friend of mine asked me for a few hints on composting. I thought this was a perfect blog topic so here we go.

The first thing that you will need to be a successful composter is a compost bin. Often once a year they are offered for half price by the municipality. There are also usually programs to get them for free. The city I used to live in offered a yearly seminar on water preservation. The seminar was about planting plants that are native to the environment so that watering becomes unnecessary. During this seminar they would go over very useful gardening tips and at the end they would take addresses down and see that a compost bin and a water barrel were delivered to everyone’s houses. I highly recommend that you search out a program like this in your area and not just for the compost bin either. If you absolutely cannot find a free or discounted bin I think you should be able to find one for less than $100. One of the reasons that a special bin is needed is because of the door on the bottom which allows a person to access the composted material without having to sift through all the rotting stuff on the top. It is also pretty crucial that the bin have an open bottom to allow liquids to drain away and beneficial insects to enter. This is why you wouldn’t want to just use a Rubbermaid container.

Once you have your bin; location is key. You want your compost to be in the sun because heat helps the contents break down faster. Additionally to that; you want to decide how close you want it to your house. If it is too far away inevitably you will end up with piles of compost material collecting in your house because you didn’t feel like walking all the way to the compost bin. This will catapult you right into a fruit fly problem which is one of the most annoying things that can go wrong with composting. Alternatively if your bin is too close to your house you will be bothered by the smell and insects. I learned this one the hard way. I put the bin right outside my front door last year when I was pregnant and didn’t feel like doing anything extra at all. The flies and smell were really annoying (especially to a pregnant nose…yuck!) but we dealt with it. However this spring I discovered that when the bin is too close if pests take up residence in it a real problem will present itself. This year some honey bees decided to set up their hive in my bin right outside my front door. My husband and I were swarmed by bees every time we went in or out of our house. This I’m sure would have been pretty funny to watch but with a two month old baby the bin had to go. My husband had to dress in a full parka with a face shield and gloves and transport the bin along with its rotting contents and angry bees to a better spot by our hedge. Learn from my mistake and really think about a good spot for you bin. Another reason for not placing the bin too close to your house is mice. Mice love compost bins and you certainly don’t want those little guys to end up running into your house opportunistically.

So now that you have your perfect spot picked out it’s time to start composting. You can dig a shallow hole under the bin. This is often recommended in compost bin manuals. I never bother. It has to be a pretty special occasion for me to actually break out the shovel and start digging holes. It’s totally fine to just add your compost to the grass under the bin. There are two types of compost: Green (wet/ kitchen scraps) and Brown (dry/ leaves and yard waste). Ideally you want to layer them so that the bin never gets too wet or too dry. It is very helpful to also add some dirt between layers. Depending on your reasons for composting this is pretty much all you have to do. If you are composting because you feel that it is very important to reduce greenhouse gasses then you are going to want to stir your compost fairly frequently to prevent gases from building up in there. My reason for composting was to avoid sending so much material to the dump. When combined with recycling I was able to reduce my family’s garbage down to less than one bag a week going to the dump.  This is especially important on the farm because we actually burn our garbage now. If you are composting so that you have lovely rich soil for your garden you will probably want to add more dirt more frequently and add water occasionally too so that it doesn’t get too dry in there and slow down the decomposition.

So now that we have covered what you have to do outside let’s talk about what you’ll need in your kitchen to get you going and keep you wanting to. I used to keep a big plastic bucket with a lid for my compost scraps in the house under the sink. I don’t recommend this. If your bucket is too big the food will start to rot in there and you will feel less and less inclined to go anywhere near it. Emptying it will be gross and if the food has been in there too long you will have to wash the bucket to get rid of smell which is also kind of yucky. An additional problem when the bin is too big is fruit flies. If you don’t empty your bin often enough you will end up will a swarm of fruit flies that can be tricky to get rid of once you have them. Basically if your indoor compost bin is too big it may actually cause you to stop composting all together. Plastic seems to absorb the compost somehow and I recommend avoiding it when it comes to choosing your in home compost container. A metal ice bucket with a lid is a great choice and you can usually find one at a second hand store for cheap. I use a regular kitchen bowl and make sure that I dump it out often.

There are some things that you should avoid putting in your compost. Potato peels are not a good idea as they attract a kind of worm that you don’t want in your compost. I also avoid mushrooms because they area  fungus. Anything that has touched oil, butter or salad dressing should be avoided as well because fats will cause stench. I wouldn’t recommend anything pickled either. Bones, meat or anything that comes from an animal should also be avoided because of the smell. I’m sure that additionally to the smell any of the above listed items wouldn’t produce a very high quality soil. Another thing that just doesn’t break down quickly enough is twigs and sticks so I wouldn’t recommend those in your compost bin either.

There were a few things that I was surprised to see that could be added. Newspaper and cardboard can be added in place of dry materials if you don’t have any dry materials and your bin is too wet. Rice, pasta, and bread can be added as long as they don’t have fat on them. Egg cartons and egg shells can be added too. I like to put my cracked shells back into the carton and then throw the whole thing in there. If you are going to be using egg shells remember to wear gloves when you are working with the composted dirt later because they can be sharp and cut your hands. Another note about eggshells is that recently I have heard that they should not be put into a compost because of the risk of salmonella. I think this is ridiculous. They are going to be in there for a whole year before they go into your garden at which point they will be part of the dirt. I don’t know too many people who garden with bare hands and then go eat a sandwich before washing up first. Most people also wash their vegetables before eating them too. I think that it’s highly unlikely for salmonella to be present in the first place but to be on the safe side just be sure to wash your hands and wash your veggies before eating them. Or of course if it makes you worry than omit egg shells from your compost.

Tips and Hints

In order for the materials to break down quickly it is important to try to avoid putting too many dry materials in there. It is always really tempting in the fall when you have leaves everywhere to throw in but resist the urge. If the bin gets too dry the composting completely stops and you just end up with a huge amount of un-composted stuff that you have to pull out and deal with later. It is best to have a separate spot for dry materials near your bin so you can add them in as needed.

Mice love compost bins. Compost bins are warm and full of food so it makes sense. I have to admit I was a little freaked out the first time I opened the door to scoop out some compost and three mice scurried over my feet. To prevent this kick the side of the bin before you open it and the mice will be gone when you open it up. I’m pretty certain that mouse poop is only dangerous to your health when it is dry and in the air for you to breath in. It won’t be dry in the bin so other than getting a little scare from them I don’t think mice pose any real problems.

If you do happen to get fruit flies in your house the only real solution that I have found is to get those sticky paper fly catchers that hang from the ceiling. Give it three to five days and your flies will be gone.

In the winter the bin will really fill up quickly. Don’t worry. Being frozen causes compost materials to break down much faster. In the spring your bin will seem to miraculously have more room every time you’re out there.

You can by compost accelerants at garden centers. They are kind of cool and can be helpful if you over zealously put in too many dry materials.

I think that it is important to note here for the inexperienced gardener that you cannot plant directly into compost. The compost alone is far too rich for plants to be able to survive in it. You have to mix compost into the soil in your garden. Think of compost as a way to add nutrients back into depleted soil. Not actually as soil itself.

I love composting. I think it’s fun and it makes me feel like I’m not wasting food if I compost rotting veggies and fruit instead of throwing them out. One of the unexpected benefits of composting turned out to be the addition of way more fruits and veggies to my diet so that I can do more composting.  I hope that this Blog entry has inspired you to love composting as much as I do.

Happy composting!

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