Roots and Shoots: Compost for All

As many new gardeners plan vegetable plots this season, I’ve been answering a lot of questions about composting.

Not only is it a resource for soil nutrients, it’s an important part of managing your imprint on the planet. Are your fruit and vegetable scraps headed to a landfill in a trash bag mixed with plastic and other waste to decompose and release methane gas and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere? Instead, mix those materials with other carbon and nitrogen sources to become an organic amendment for your plants.

There are basic rules of composting. The main idea is that you mix browns (leaves, dead plants, newspaper, small sticks or wood chips) and greens (fruit and vegetable scraps, eggshells or coffee grounds). By doing this, you’re creating a space to speed up the decay with a mix of carbon- and nitrogen-rich materials that result in a healthy hummus to top-dress a garden.

Recognizing that everyone has varying degrees of complication in their stay-at-home lives, here are approaches that can be more-or less time-intensive to begin composting or to try a new approach.

If you have an hour

Make a pile in your yard that is conveniently located from your home. After many years of composting in many settings, this is a big consideration. If it’s too much of a hassle to get to in every season, it becomes another chore.

Collect small sticks, wood chips, dead plants and leaves for a base layer of a few inches. The sticks will help air circulation as the pile grows. Begin adding green materials on top of this. An ideal size for compost is 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet. When you’ve hit this shape, stop adding to it and let the microbes work. Make a new pile. Or set up a worm bin for vermicomposting. (See highlandscurrent.org/worming.)

If you’re ready for a half-day project

compost

The hardware cloth sides stapled to a wood frame made this compost container easy to build and give it good air flow and drainage. The front gates come off to easily empty or turn it. (Photo by P. Doan)

Build a compost bin, or three. If you eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, have trees that drop leaves in the fall, and a lot of plant clippings, a three-bin system could fill up within a year. The goal is to always have one pile that you can draw from, one that is resting, and one that you’re adding to.

My home composting includes chicken bedding and grass clippings, as well as vegetarian cooking and a yard full of mature trees. I can fill three bins in a season. Take those things into consideration when you choose a containment system.

Build the bins out of wood and wire, or buy a plastic compost bin. An affordable option is to use three wood pallets, which you can probably find for free. Make a three-sided bin with the front as the opening for adding material or scooping it out. It’s easy to find DIY inspiration online.

If you’re purchasing a bin, there are many choices and you could find one that meets a design or aesthetic principle for your landscape. Keep in mind how easy it will be to access when you want to empty it or turn the contents.

Master composter (you have time and love science)

I call myself a lazy composter. Before I had chickens and a bag for the lawn mower to collect clippings, my compost would take a year to break down. I didn’t turn it or check the moisture or heat levels. I didn’t balance ratios of greens and browns. I made a pile and was happy to keep my organic materials out of the landfill.

If that works for you, that’s fine. This does not have to be an involved or intimidating project. However, if the science of carbon-and nitrogen-making microbes and creating new cells is interesting to you, it’s possible to take a deep dive into perfect hot and fast composting.

By calculating the C/N ratio of each material you add to the bin, you can strive to hit a balance of 30:1 by weight. At this level, the pile will have optimal heat for quick decomposition. The moisture levels, temperature and oxygen can be measured and balanced, as well. The Cornell Waste Management Institute at compost.css.cornell.edu has calculations and formulas.

Last note: Don’t add meat, sauces, fats or pet waste.

Gardening questions? Email Pamela at rootsandshoots@highlandscurrent.org.


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