Composting is a great way to turn your worthless kitchen scraps and yard debris into a valuable soil amendment, and it’s also great for the environment. Consider, for example, the composting program in operation at the U.S. House of Representatives: the 495 members of the House, plus their staff, toss compostable material into receptacles that are then hauled off, turned into fertilizer, and returned to Capitol Hill to fertilize the Capitol gardens. As of last November, more than 1,000 tons of refuse had been kept out of landfills and put to good use.
Indeed, according to the EPA, 26% of municipal solid waste is stuff that could have been turned into fertilizer, had it been composted. In this newsletter, we’ll give beginners some advice on getting started composting, and offer hardcore composters some hot tips. In fact, we’ll start right now with this bit of folk wisdom: “A good compost pile should get hot enough to poach an egg, but not so hot it would cook a lobster.”
Types of Compost Systems
The simplest thing to do is to start a compost pile, and the best place to start it is on a partially sunny, well-drained, level spot. The next step up from that is to make a compost bin from some old pallets. If you’re handy with lumber, you might try something more elaborate, like a fellow who posted a video on YouTube that had a compost tumbler made out of a fifty-five gallon metal drum.
You can also buy a professionally designed composting tumbler. We also have two units, The Worm Hive and The Worm Box, that concentrate on generating highly nutritious worm castings using kitchen scraps as worm food.
What to Compost
Here’s a list of things that you can compost:
• Animal manure
• Cardboard rolls
• Clean paper
• Coffee grounds and filters
• Cotton and wool rags
• Dryer and vacuum cleaner lint
• Fireplace ashes
• Fruits and vegetables
• Grass clippings
• Hair and fur
• Hay and straw
• Nut shells
• Shredded newspaper
• Tea bags
• Wood chips and sawdust
• Yard trimmings
What Not to Compost
There is a bit of confusion about this because certain things can be composted, but will generate bad smells and attract rodents and other critters. For these reasons, we come down on the side of those who recommend you keep dairy products out of your compost, along with fats, grease, lards, oils, and any bone and scraps from meat or fish. Eggshells, however, are an exception: they have no negative impact and will add some much-needed calcium to the mix.
To avoid chemical contamination, don’t add yard trimmings treated with pesticides, or any coal or charcoal ash. And to keep from propagating plant disease, keep any disease-ridden plants out of your compost, along with any leaves or twigs from black walnut trees. Also, don’t add any baby or pet waste to your compost.
You might be surprised to learn though, that it is possible to turn your pet waste into compost via worms. Instructions to make this kind of composter may be found at cityfarmer.org, or you can buy a professionally designed unit such as the Pet Waste Composter and Worm Farm. Not for everyone, but if you want free fertilizer for your ornamental plants, a handy place to dispose of pet waste, and a ready supply of fishing worms, this kind of composting might be for you.
Once you’ve got your compost system rolling, your compost will need air, sun, and water in order for the microorganisms to do their work of turning the compost into fertilizer.
Aeration is accomplished by some kind of mixing or turning of the compost on a regular basis. This is what’s so great about tumbler compost units, but with a non-movable system you just use a pitchfork or other garden tool to stir up your compost every few days.
Compost should be moist but not wet. If your compost is dryer than a wrung-out sponge, spray some water into it and mix it around. But you don’t want your compost to be soggy, because that will slow down the work of the microorganisms that are busy breaking it down into fertilizer.
Refining Your Technique: Balancing the Browns with the Greens
Once you’ve got the hang of basic composting, you might want to refine your technique by striking a balance between what are known as the “browns” and the “greens.” Browns are dry and dead materials such as autumn leaves, straw, sawdust, wood chips, and cardboard. Greens are fresh and often green material such as weeds and leaves, as well as kitchen scraps, coffee grounds and tea bags.
Greens supply nitrogen while browns supply carbon. Greens provide moisture while browns provide bulk and fiber. The ideal ratio between soft greens and woody browns is two parts green to one part brown. Keep this in mind when throwing materials into your compost, and you’ll get the quickest and best results.
Patience, Patience, Patience…
As with other aspects of gardening, composting requires a certain amount of patience. You can’t be in too much of a hurry to start using it. As someone once quipped, “Compost is best aged a little like a fine wine. I mean, would you want to drink something that was made last Thursday?” You’ll know when your compost is ready to use when it becomes almost black and has a nice earthy smell. This can take up to a year, but if you have a first-rate system and the right conditions, it might only take a couple of months.
Newsflash: House Composting Program Canceled
Since the time I began this newsletter, I am sorry to report that Committee on House Administration Chairman Dan Lungren has announced that the U.S. House of Representatives is suspending its composting program. If you would like to petition Chairman Dan Lungren to reinstate it, please click here.
Happy Composting from all of us at Garden Harvest Supply!