Thursday, June 16, 2011

Lesson Number 2: Composting

Composting is one of those gardening things that can seem really intimidating if you don't know much about the process. However, it is actually a pretty easy task to accomplish. Generally, I find there are two ways to compost: neglectfully or super-attentively. I'm not sure those are really words, but I'm using them. If you are someone who composts neglectfully, you are pretty good about adding things to the compost pile but, usually, end up with more "brown" (a.k.a. dry) material than "green" (a.k.a. wet) material and never, ever bother to turn the pile. If you are someone who composts super-attentively, you get a little crazed about adding things,  trying to keep a good balance of wet and dry, are constantly turning your compost (or have one of those rotating compost bins), and throw every random earthworm you find in the pile for good measure.

Both ways work well. The primary difference seems to be that the neglectful path (a.k.a. "cold" composting) won't result in compost for a full year or so, while the attentive path (a.k.a. "hot" composting) can result in compost within weeks or months. The compost from both is equally as rich and beneficial for your garden. We tend to employ a fairly healthy balance of both forms. We have a regular plastic compost bin that is literally just 4 walls and a lid as well as rotating bin. Both varieties work well. Most of the compost in the front garden beds is from the regular plastic bin and took well over a year to produce. We began our rotating bin at the beginning of the summer and are well on our way to good compost.

If you choose to compost at your house, understand that it need not be a complicated process. If you live out in the boonies and have plenty of space, your compost could literally be a pile of leaves at the edge of the woods. If you live in the city, a clean 5 gallon paint bucket with a lid can do the job nicely. You'll just need to keep certain elements in mind.

1) Compost needs air. Air helps it to break down faster. If you are cold composting, the lack of aeration is part of what creates such an extended waiting period. If you opt for a method as easy as the 5 gallon paint bucket method, you'll need to punch a few holes in the bottom of the bucket as well as the lid. Rolling the bucket along the ground on its side (with the lid on) will provide the items inside with plenty of aeration. You could even go as far as dumping your compost from one bucket to another to aerate it.

2) Compost needs water. However, it does not need to swim. Water also helps your compost to break down. Your compost pile should have good drainage (another reason for holes in the bottom of your bucket). It should not sit in a space that collects rainwater like a small pond. Most pre-made compost bins come with small holes in the lid to allow rainwater to get inside the container to water the compost.

3) Compost needs "brown" material. Brown material is generally dry matter that helps to add to the bulk of compost. While most instructions will tell you that you need fairly equal portions of brown matter to green matter, I prefer to compost with about twice as much brown matter to green. It helps to control the smell of your compost.* Items that qualify as brown matter are brown leaves from the fall, clean cardboard, paper towels (that were only wet with water- no chemicals), shredded paper, newsprint, etc. I do suggest tearing larger items into smaller pieces. More surface space = faster break down.

4) Compost needs "green" material. Green material is generally "wet" matter that helps to really break down the compost and add nutrients. Green materials include raw vegetable and fruit scraps, grass clippings, old bouquets of flowers, etc. Green materials should be either buried in the compost pile or covered with a fresh layer of brown matter.

*Smell is super important when composting. Your compost should smell like dirt. If it smells like mold or mildew, it is getting too wet. If is smells like rotting veggies, you aren't adding enough brown matter. If it really doesn't have a smell, it doesn't have enough water, air, and green matter, which is generally how cold composting seems.

NEVER put animal products in your compost! No meat scraps, no grease, no bones, no dairy products!These items will kill your compost and essentially create a rot pile. Ewww, doesn't even begin to cover it. Some sites and composting gurus will tell you some dairy products are okay, but I generally find them to be more of a hassle than they are worth and feel like they slow the composting process too much. Dairy products also tend to attract ants and other pests. However, you can compost rinsed egg shells. If you own a guinea pig, rabbit, or similar herbivore, and you use shredded paper or wood shavings for its litter, you can compost its waste. Not everyone feels comfortable with doing that, but it is safe and usable. Used litter would fall into the "green" matter category.  You cannot compost any other animals' waste. Carnivores and omnivores will often carry parasites that you don't want to have in your garden space.  Ironically, a scoop of dry dog or cat food is actually good for your compost bin and will help things break down faster.

There are a lot of things that can be composted- plenty of websites can give you extensive lists. Below is a rather brief list of some of my favorites that I bet you didn't know. :)

1) If you wear clothes that are 100% cotton- you can compost your dryer lint! If not, you can put it out in net bags (like those that onions come in) for the birds to use to fluff their nests
2) Coffee grounds and the filters
3) Used tea leaves and their bags/tags (I usually pull off the staples)
4) PLAIN cooked rice or pasta (no butter or other stuff- I've not done the pasta, but I have done the rice)
5) Paper plates, paper napkins, paper cups- preferably fairly clean of afforementions no-nos (a little Ranch residue won't kill your whole compost bin, but a plate covered with Ranch and BBQ remains is not really a great idea)
6) Nuts and their shells (except for walnut shells, which can be poisonous to other plants)
7) Whole pumpkins and jack-o-lanterns (cut into quarters if whole, wiped clean of paint residue)
8) Toilet paper tubes, 100% cotton balls and swabs
9) Pencil Shavings
10) Ashes from fireplaces and grills

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