Friday, April 10, 2009

Compost Happens

Compost happens. Good bumper sticker. Compost does just happen, there’s not much work involved other than gathering the right stuff and dumping it in. We’ve had lots of different compost set ups over the years; currently we’ve got two composts going. We have one that is specifically for the high rent plants (tomatoes, peppers, new perennials that cost a lot) and one for everything else. The high rent compost is kept in a fancy composter that I purchased from Gardener’s Supply catalog in a fit of this-is-an-investment-so-it’s-OK-to-spend-a-fortune. Really it’s not necessary. My friend Lisa got her composter free from the extension service by attending a seminar on composting. You can easily build your own and there are lots of plans out there. You can also simply designate an area and start piling. Depends on how seriously you take your composting.

We began our composting journey by reading the book, Compost This Book! By Tom Christopher and Marty Asher. It’s very readable and even funny. There are lots of other books out there. If you don’t have the time or the inclination to read a book, there is a great website that explains it very simply and clearly I’m going to steal shamelessly from the information found there, so if you want the complete scoop (so to speak), stop reading right now and just click on their site.

Compost needs green stuff (nitrogen), brown stuff (carbon), water, and air. That’s pretty much it.

Green stuff is fruit peelings, vegetables scraps, eggshells (crush them), coffee grounds + filters, and tea leaves. It’s pretty much anything that doesn’t have animal fat or meat in it. When we designed our kitchen we added a compost collector to our pull-out garbage bin. Before that we kept a fancy compost collector on our counter. It was porcelain and had a lid with a built in filter. Any upscale garden catalog will have lots of versions of these. Prior to that, we had a plastic bucket under the sink. Anything will work, but if you don’t want to be running out to the compost several times a day, I’d encourage you to use something inconspicuous and large, with a lid. When compost begins breaking down, it does smell a little, but it’s not a bad smell. If it starts to stink badly, think carefully about what you’ve been putting in your compost. It will attract fruit flies, so a lid is a good thing.

Green stuff is also manure of any animal that isn’t a meat eater. In other words don’t try to compost your dog or cat poop. Not good. But horse, cow, and chicken manure are all good. Chicken manure is especially good, and rabbit manure is even better. If you haven't got any of these animals yourself, make friends with a farmer. They'll usually gladly give you whatever you'll pick up. Grass and flower clippings are also green stuff. You can even throw in weeds if you’re sure they haven’t gone to seed. Otherwise you’ll be only creating problems.

You need 2 parts brown stuff for each 1 part green stuff. Brown stuff is generally dryer to begin with. It’s things like dead leaves (preferably chipped up so they break down quicker), newspaper (don’t use the glossy circulars), shredded cardboard, egg cartons, corn cobs & stalks (chopped up), wood chips, sawdust, wood ash (lightly), pine needles (go easy – they’re very acidic), straw, and shrub prunings (chopped up). I’m sure I’m forgetting something, but basically it’s anything that is organic and will break down. The more you can begin that process, by cutting up or chipping the brown stuff, the faster your compost will happen.

Your compost also needs air. This requires that you turn it occasionally. The fancy composter that I purchased is not supposed to need this turning because of its amazing design. Alas, that promise was too good to be true and getting a pitchfork in to its fancy design turns out to be pretty difficult. But we paid way too much good money for the thing, so we persevere and find our ways. If you layer your compost steadily with brown-green, it shouldn’t need too much turning.

The last thing your compost needs (besides time) is water. You can uncover it periodically and let the rain take care of that or you can manually water it yourself. Too much water and too little drainage will turn your compost in to a murky, solid mess. So make sure that there is a way for your compost to drain.

Our other compost pile is enormous and basically a free-for-all. It’s where we pile our yard clippings, horse manure, leaves, straw, miscellaneous paper, and cotton clothing. It is a long term investment. It is not covered, but is in the woods on a hill, so it doesn’t seem to be oversaturated and has plenty of drainage. Turning it requires our neighbor’s front end loader, so that doesn’t happen much. I’ve been saving it up to use in the terraced beds we are planning to build in to the hillside “some day”.

So compost happens and then what do you do? We use up nearly all of our high-rent compost each summer when we transplant the new babies. We will dig a hole much bigger than necessary for the transplant and then work lots of compost in to the bottom of the hole before planting. Our tomato plants were over six feet high last summer and produced, literally, wheel barrows full of tomatoes. Compost works.

And compost doesn’t just work for your garden. It also works for our world. It reduces waste and adds nutrients back to the soil. Start composting today – drill some holes in the bottom of a garbage can and get started. Teach your children about composting. There’s a great science lesson in all this nitrogen and carbon. It’s also a lesson in life. Everything is useful – even garbage and when you add in all the right garbage, you can make gold. Pass it on. Compost happens.

1 comment:

  1. Cara- I'm posting on my site Today's Housewife tomorrow (April 27th) about my problems with composting and recommending this post to our readers so they can know what to do! Thanks for your detail!