By Pamela Doan
When I lived in a studio apartment in Brooklyn with a husband and two pets, composting was a luxury of space I didn’t have so it was a welcome event when the farmer’s market set up drop-off sites for organic waste. All those banana peels and apple cores finally had a purpose and a community garden took it all away. I kept a bag in the freezer until I could drop it off.
Now I still keep a bag in the fridge, but I get to have my own compost pile in the yard, too. Once a week, I clean everything out and visit with pitchfork in hand to fluff and mix it all in, covering up the fresh bits to hide them from the critters that find it irresistible. My compost is lazy, though. The ratio isn’t great and it doesn’t get very hot. I still get compost, it just takes longer than if I were really “cooking” it. I can clean out my compost pile two to three times a year.
Composting is one of the most basic ways to cut down on the amount of garbage a household contributes to a landfill and at the same time, create a renewable, cheap source of additives to enrich the soil for plants and trees. Getting started is easy.
A first step is to decide what kind of system works best for your circumstances and where to put it. A three-bin system has one designated container for fresh materials, a second section for holding compost that’s nearly ready, and a third for finished compost that can be used when it’s needed. Another popular method is a tumbler-style bin. It’s basically a barrel on a stand that can be turned with a handle. One winter I used a garbage can for compost since I could keep it close to the house and not have to trudge through snow drifts to reach the other pile. Poke holes in the sides and top for air circulation and in the spring, just dump it on the garden.
I learned from my experiment that it can get very wet and I made the mistake of not having an accessible supply of “browns.” I ended up adding it all to my other pile when the snow melted and it worked, anyway, but I could have saved time with better planning. Depending on how much material you expect to have available for composting, choose a method that suits your needs. A three-bin system that’s built of 3-foot-by-3-foot sections could work best for a family with a garden and a yard. A simple can composter or tumbler can suffice for compost that’s basically kitchen scraps.
One of the most commonly asked questions about compost is what to add. Plant material is the rule of thumb. Vegetable and fruit scraps leftover from cooking or the garden, plant cuttings, shredded leaves, wood chips, eggshells, grass clippings, you can even compost most weeds after they’ve been left in a trash bag in the sun to kill off their seedlings first. Don’t compost pet waste, meat, bread or dairy products in home compost. Be careful not to add diseased plant material, too, or else you’ll end up fostering the bacteria in the compost and spreading it around.
From there on out, the amount of effort is up to you. Turning the pile and adding fresh material weekly will yield faster results. Making sure that it stays damp, but not wet contributes to healthy microbes, too. Covering an exposed pile during dry spells will help it retain moisture, but it isn’t required. Maintaining a ratio of roughly three buckets of carbon-rich material to one bucket of nitrogen-rich material will make the compost heat up and decompose rapidly. Examples of “browns,” the carbon energy, are wood chips, paper products, shredded leaves, and plant stalks.
“Green” materials that provide the nitrogen are kitchen scraps, grass clippings, and coffee grounds. This time of year set aside piles of leaves and run them through with a lawn mower to break them up. Keep the pile near the compost bin and it’s a ready supply of brown material to add when it’s needed.
A hot compost pile can reach up to 160 degrees, but that isn’t what most home gardeners hit. My pile doesn’t get hot at all, as I said, lazy compost, but if you’re a competitive type, there’s your goal. There are many online resources with directions for building bins and lists of materials, too. It truly isn’t that complicated and adding a couple of inches of compost to the garden and flower beds every year will make for healthy, happy plants.