Thursday, May 5, 2011

Do You Compost?

If your answer is yes, you have my permission to skip reading this blog post.

If your answer is no, I'd like to make a special appeal to you: consider engaging in the simple, delightful process of turning organic "waste" into the resource it really is. This is International Compost Awareness Week, and in honor of the event, I'd like to challenge you to make a bold move to cease throwing kitchen scraps into the trash and instead give composting a try. In doing so you'll discover for yourself how magical (and how easy!) the act of composting can be.

Composting is magical because it takes garbage and turns it into a useable product – compost, also known as "humus." Humus is a crucial but often lacking component of healthy soil. Adding compost to the earth reduces the need for commercial soil amendments, as well as manufactured chemical fertilizers that can run off our properties and into the rivers and lakes, polluting our water supply. Compost adds nutrients and micronutrients to depleted soil, helps soils retain moisture, and reduces erosion. This allows us to grow healthier plants, from vegetables and fruits to native flowers and even grass. It can act as mulch and side dressing and can be used to make "compost tea." Compost can be purchased, of course, but it is virtually free, after start-up expenses, once you begin converting your own kitchen waste into this natural resource.

And composting really IS easy. There are three main ways to compost -- choose your favorite. The bottom line is that anything you do to return resources to the soil, rather than send them to the landfill, is an important contribution to environmental sustainability.

The first method of composting I'm going to discuss is probably the most well-known. Hot composting is a technique whereby your aim is to "cook" your vegetable-based waste. Food scraps heat and thus break down faster into compost. Contrary to popular opinion, a pile doesn't necessarily heat because of the sun or summer temperatures. It heats when beneficial composting bacteria go to work inside a pile, heating it to degrees upwards of 160 F. This pasteurizes the pile and creates high quality compost quickly – the total turn-around time is about three months when a pile properly heats.

While this is a fantastic composting method, it can be tricky to get a pile to heat. Heating requires a carbon to nitrogen ratio of 30:1 in the waste. Carbon rich materials include things like dead leaves and hay. Nitrogen rich materials include fresh-cut grass, vegetable scraps, or manure. Many say a good rule of thumb is to mix two parts carbon-rich "brown" materials with one part nitrogen-rich "green" materials. In order to heat, the pile also needs to be adequately moist (about as wet as a wrung-out sponge) and it needs to good oxygen flow – aeration is encouraged through regular turning of the pile.

Sounds fun, doesn't it?

Um….sort of? I know I don't have time to do all these things. I would, of course, LOVE to see my big ol' pile out back get so hot it steams, but I know accomplishing this is no small task.

An alternative is what is called "passive" or "cool" composting. This is the outdoor composting method of choice for those who are extremely busy – or just plain lazy. I think I may have one foot in each of those categories, which is why this method works so well for me. The main difference between hot and passive composting is the amount of work that goes into it – and the amount of time it takes to create usable compost. For my pile, I simply dump waste into the bin. I try to layer the types of waste I add – for example, if I dump in nitrogen-rich veggie and fruit scraps I will cover them with carbon-rich dead leaves. I do this to help the carbon-nitrogen balance and to cover any offensive-smelling waste that might attract flies. Occasionally I will also turn the pile, although I admit I don't do it often enough to call it "hot" composting.

Interestingly, right now my pile is so big that it seems to be heating, despite my laziness. If it heats, it will compost faster. Otherwise, the compost from a passive pile is typically ready in six to twelve months. I usually harvest compost in late spring, just as I'm preparing my vegetable beds.

One caution: if you choose passive composting, avoid adding weed seeds to your pile. Though most weed seeds will be destroyed by heating, without the heat the seeds may survive the composting process and end up sprouting in your gardens.

The third method is worm composting, AKA vermicomposting. I've written about in the past on this blogand I own a small vermicomposting supply business; I encourage you to peruse those resources if you want to learn more. Vermicomposting is my favorite composting method, simply because it's fast, can be done indoors year-round, and produces a superior compost that plants love. Worm composting creates finished compost in approximately two to four months.

With all three methods, avoid adding meat, fish, poultry, dairy, and other animal products, as these wastes create offensive odors and can attract pests. Also avoid adding heavily processed and salty foods, charcoal briquettes and ashes, and dog and cat feces. Paper products are OK – throw those coffee filters and paper towels in with your fruit and vegetable waste. They'll break down quickly in a compost bin of any kind.

As for composting systems, you can invest in an expensive commercial compost bin, and if you want to do this, more power to you. Just make sure you read as many user ratings as possible before spending money so you have an idea of what to expect. Of course, you do not have to buy an expensive commercial bin to compost. There are plenty of plans for bins, ranging from a simple cylinder made of chicken wire to more complex wooden systems. You can also use concrete blocks to build bins. The Wisconsin DNR has a nice site with composting resources, including info on types of home composting bins. Check it out.

My passive bin is made from scrap wood and chicken wire, which allows for decent air flow around the pile. Wooden slats in the front slide up and out when the time comes to remove the compost. The two sides allow me to focus on adding waste to one side at a time; when the first side is ready, I remove any unfinished materials and place them in the other side, then begin adding new waste to the second side.

If you are unable to compost yourself, you may be able to find a neighbor to help you. I use my large bin to help neighbors compost. I also feed neighbors' waste to the thousands of red wiggler worms that eat garbage in my basement.

If you can't find a neighbor to help you compost, locate a community composting collective, like the Milwaukee Community Compost Network. Or, start a collective yourself.

If you have a big composting bin and not enough waste to fill it, you might consider offering to compost for your neighbors. You can also try to compost for local restaurants and grocers. There are many possibilities for composting. By working together, every community can turn their garbage into gardens!

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