Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Let's Compost! Pt. I

For me, the epitome of "Fast, Cheap, and Good" might be composting.  It is quick and easy to toss your organic waste into a compost pile, it certainly costs nothing, and it keeps waste out of the landfills while generating beautiful humus for your garden.

For the novice composter, however, composting appears to be a difficult chore.  Our culture simply doesn't teach us to compost, and marketers have rushed into the void with tons of products meant to "get you started." 

This year, I'd like you to consider redirecting some of your waste to compost; to help, this is the first in a series on how to compost.  I'll start with some frequently asked questions:

Is composting difficult?
No.  Remember, much of human history has been lived without a weekly trash pick-up.  Communities regularly put their waste into piles; archeologists love this kind of thing.  What we are going to do is use a natural decomposition process to take care of organic waste, which will result in fewer beads and pottery shards for future archeologists, but might keep the planet around long enough for future excavations.

Does compost smell bad?
Yes and no.  Part of the misunderstanding about compost comes from the fact that we use the word "compost" to mean three separate phases of the project.  Let me break these down and give each its own term:

"Raw compost" is your table scraps, egg shells, and the like.  If you let this sit around in your compost container in the house, it will indeed mold and smell bad.  A little fireplace wood ash in the bottom of your container will control the odor, but it really needs to go out on the pile to start breaking down.

"Working compost" is the material in your pile.  This is the stuff from your household compost bucket, plus dirt, grass clippings, fallen leaves, and the like.  Earthworms and certain soil bacteria love this, and as they munch away, they assist the process of decomposition.  If your compost pile smells, it is probably because you have too much "green matter" (generally from raw compost) and too little "brown matter" (like leaves, grass, and dirt).  If your working compost pile smells, you need to stir it with a pitchfork and add a little brown matter to the top.  Easy.

"Finished compost" is humus, the dark brown dirt that can be used as potting soil or as garden fertilizer.  One of the ways you know it is finished is by the smell -- it smells of life, freshness, and Spring.  It is truly one of my favorite scents.

Do I need an expensive container?
No.  Garden retailers have devised a number of products for compost creation, most of which are unnecessary.  One of these is the rotating plastic drum that is supposed to generate finished compost in two to six weeks.  Who needs their compost that fast?  A large-scale gardener might, but then that person will need a lot more finished compost than can be created in that drum.

There is one circumstance in which a commercial compost drum might be useful:  If you are composting in an urban environment or one in which you have absolutely no land (like an apartment or a condo with restrictive common space regulations), you may only be able to compost in a container.  Otherwise, you should try to put your compost in contact with the ground.

Do I need compost additives?
Again, compost additives, like live earthworms and bacteria innoculant, are useful only for container composting.  Even then, a few shovels of "live" dirt (that is, not the sterilized stuff sold as potting soil) and a few earthworms (which I would be tempted to buy cheap at a bait shop) will do the trick. 

Are my neighbors going to complain?
If you are worried about the neighbors, your job is either to educate them or to make sure they never know you are composting.  If you choose the latter, you may want to enclose your pile in a frame made of picket fence panels rather than the chicken wire that folks like me use.  You can use the same set of construction instructions one would use to make an enclosure for an air conditioner compressor, only be sure to use fence panels with openings that will let in rain and air.  Monitor your pile closely for any odor that indicates you need more brown matter, and your neighbors shouldn't even know unless they come over and lift the lid.

Will I attract critters?
I will confess that I sometimes leave strawberry trimmings on the top of the pile to feed the rabbits that inhabit my property.  (Then I complain mightily a month later when they have stayed around to eat my tomatoes.)  Small herbivores shouldn't be much of a concern for you, but if you are concerned about larger animals, be certain that you always mix the raw compost into the working pile very well.

I hope this makes you think a little about starting your own composting operation; we will consider the how-tos in a future post.  Readers, let me know:  do you currently compost?  Are you considering it for this year?
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