Wednesday, March 9, 2016

How to Compost - Whether You Garden or Not

I recently came across an article in a popular magazine about whether to put foods down the garbage disposal, or to throw them in the garbage. Every item that it mentioned, from the wet stuff they advised to put down the drain, to the solids they recommend we throw in the garbage, are things that we compost. Nowhere in this article did it even mention composting. I was kind of floored.

We've been reducing our impact on landfills and enriching our garden soil for years with this incredibly simple practice. While I appreciate having a garbage disposal just because it quickly and easily removes gunk that gets rinsed off our dishes, I never intentionally put food, leftovers, cores, rinds, or anything food-based down the drain. Composting is easy! Why waste water sending ground up food down to the water treatment plant, or create stinky, rotting garbage every week, when you can let kitchen scraps do what they do best: turn them into natural, rich compost!

During fruit fly season, or if you have curious pets, it can really help to keep your compost container covered. Our compost bin came from a thrift store without it's original lid, so our makeshift and fully functional lid consists of a conveniently sized plate. Every time we empty the container, I give it a quick wash to ensure that it's not getting gross. I think when there are a lot of fruit flies around people's compost, it's often because the container hasn't been cleaned thoroughly. During fruit fly season, emptying and thoroughly washing the bin every 48 hours will prevent fruit flies from breeding in it.

Composting in Your Yard:

Our system is straightforward. Everything that we don't eat or feed to our pets gets scraped, tossed, or poured into our little kitchen collection bin. When the bin gets full, a couple times a week, we dump it into our large backyard compost bin. Whenever I have newspapers or non-shiny junk mail, or when the kids finish a workbook, I tear them into strips and toss them into the yard bin. Ideally, there should be about an equal volume of "greens" (fresh, wet, food waste) and "browns" (dry leaves, shredded paper) in your bin.

We have a two-bin system, where we place waste in one bin until it's full, and then let the compost mature in that bin, while filling another bin with kitchen scraps and paper. It can take several months for compost to mature, depending on the season. It helps to give it a stir with a pitchfork every once in a while. If it's dry give it some water. Keep it covered so it doesn't dry out in the sun or get too wet from rain. Heat helps things break down, so we keep our bins in a warm, sunny nook in our yard, conveniently close to our garden bed where the finished compost will be used.

The above compost has been maturing for a few months. It hasn't been stirred, so the stuff on top has not been broken down, but underneath will be a heap of mature soil. We also use red worms in our compost, which help digest food waste into clean soil. Ask friends who garden, or your local gifting group, if they have a couple handfuls of red worms they could spare to help get your compost going. (Note: I usually tear up my egg cartons into smaller pieces, which makes for easier composting, but sometimes I get lazy/busy and just toss it whole into the bin. Either way, it will become soil eventually!)

If You Don't Compost at Home:

What if you don't have a yard? Or don't want to mess around with making compost in your yard? Many urban areas now offer free compost collection, included with your weekly garbage service. This giant gray bin is for yard and food waste, and essentially anything made of natural materials that will break down into soil. Just like the big blue recycling bin, yard waste collection in our area is free for all garbage service customers. Your food and yard waste will be picked up and brought to a large composting facility, where it will be turned into great mature compost for local gardeners to purchase. This option is easy and straightforward, and does serve to keep a lot of unnecessary waste from our landfills. However, I prefer to skip the middle man and make my own compost for my plants, rather than needing to buy someone else's.

What Not to Put in Your Compost Bin:

If you are making your own compost, there are certain things you will find that don't break down as easy as others. Mango pits, orange peels, onion skins, avocado pits and peels... I still toss these things in. I know they'll break down eventually, and I don't mind having a chunkier "mature" compost.  However, you never want to put meat, cheese, or other animal products in your compost. This would just open the door for rats, who smell that stuff from down the street and will come running. Rats won't be an issue if you keep your compost plant-based. Throw on a good layer of shredded paper anytime fruit flies become a problem.

Things I avoid putting in my home compost bin, but which are fine in the bin that gets picked up, are branches (woody debris takes more time + heat to break down) and those compostable take-out cups, utensils, and containers (unless they're simply made of cardboard, they just won't get enough time and heat in a home compost setup). Likewise, meat scraps, bones, and other animal products can be placed in the bin that gets picked up. Bones will definitely break down in those giant compost heaps. Plus, animal scraps are no more likely to attract rats in the yard waste bin that gets picked up every week, than they would be in the garbage. Natural fabrics like silk, wool, hemp, and 100% cotton will break down in the compost, but may not break down quickly enough for the home composter.

Things made from plastic, glass, styrofoam, rubber, nylon, metal, etc need to be recycled or placed in the garbage, as appropriate for your area. Fortunately most packaging is recyclable these days, and hopefully someday more of it will be compostable. Do not compost any soaps or cleaning chemicals, as this would harm the microbes that are essential for breaking things down.

What to Compost:

I compost all fruit and vegetable scraps, bits of bread that my kids don't finish, any food that has gone bad, used tea leaves and tea bags, coffee grounds and coffee filters, egg shells and cardboard egg cartons, paper grocery bags, paper napkins and tissues, and non-shiny junk mail and newspapers, which should be shredded into approximately 2 x 6" strips. This is a great way to get rid of sensitive documents that have account numbers and personal information on them. Turn them into soil, problem solved!

We lived for several years without having garbage service at all, which worked for us because we were able to compost so much of our waste. We eventually needed the service again though, mostly for the recycling collection that goes along with garbage pickup.

With a tiny bit of effort, you can reroute this vital waste stream from landfills to create an enriching soil, for your garden or some gardening neighbor. Mature compost holds vital nutrients, stores rainwater, and supports so much microbial life, which is essential for thriving plants.
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Write comments
March 15, 2016 at 2:41 PM

I agree, composting is easy and the best way to dispose of kitchen scraps. I find it helps to line the compost bin with newspaper and just throw that in with the compost when it goes to the main bin. Also if there's any fruit fly maggots etc I leave the bin out for the chickens to clean up!

June 13, 2016 at 6:30 PM

great tips! I need to start composting and have recently joined a garden group so will ask around for some worms! thanks for sharing!

June 14, 2016 at 1:56 PM

Lining the collection bin with newspaper is a great idea!