Compost: The Quick and Dirty Way
Compost happens. It doesn’t require a designer bin or an esoteric method. For food to break down you do not need to employ any special algorithms or store-bought “starters.”
Compost is decomposition and decomposition is everywhere. The banana peel you threw into the rose bush, the leaves on the forest floor that no one takes a leaf blower to, our own bodies. This is earth’s cycle at its most simple and elegant, life is shed off; a fallen leaf, snakeskin, or dead body, they are all transformed into something new.
According to The Guardian, Americans throw out about 50% of all produce equalling about 60 million tons annually.
In the landfill, this produce does not become compost. Instead, it breaks down anaerobically (without oxygen) and produces methane gas as a by-product. Composting is one way to divert this food from the waste stream.
Another reason to compost is the by-product. Finished compost added to your garden feeds the soil food web which in turn makes nutrients available to your plants. Compost improves the structure, increases water holding capacity, adds macronutrients and micronutrients, and balances pH of soil. Compost even binds up heavy metals and contaminants making them less available to plants.
How it Works
Compost happens when invertebrates, fungus, bacteria and other microorganisms eat the material and poop it out. Larger organisms found in compost include centipedes, snails, millipedes, mites, springtails, spiders, slugs, beetles, flies, nematodes, ants, flatworms, earthworms and probably a lot of other ones that have been hiding from me. These organisms chew the material into smaller pieces.
The real compost workers, however, are the aerobic bacteria. These bacteria eat carbon and oxidize it to create energy for themselves. This process causes the compost pile to heat up to as much as 160 degrees F. This heat is important as it kills harmful soil bacteria and most weed seeds that may be present in the compost.
Stick it Where?
Your compost bin should be placed where it is most convenient for you. I like having it near the garden for ease of placing the finished product in the soil. Some people prefer to have it closer to the kitchen to reduce long walks to the compost.
Note that a healthy compost should not stink but at times it may. Therefore, you may want to place it away from the house and upwind of where people congregate.
Many people suggest hiding your compost behind trees or tool sheds. I suggest taking pride in your compost, make it the center stage of your garden and show it off at dinner parties.
Don’t let the compost touch any buildings as it may damage them. Make sure the ground underneath the bin has good drainage. Placing the bin in the shade and close to a water source is also helpful.
So Many Bins
You may have noticed that someone is always trying to sell you something you don’t need, the world of compost is no different. There are countless designer bins on the market each vying for its chance to eat your compost.
Compost can be as simple as a pile in your yard.
Many home gardeners, however, will not want to go with the open pile method. It may attract unwanted animal visitors, may look unsightly and because it is not contained may be more difficult to manage. Whichever design you go with make sure the circumference is at least three feet. Below are some options:
Pallet Bin: I like this one because it makes use of an item that is commonly thrown out.
Bricks: Large bricks work best. Make 3 walls of bricks about 3 feet high.
City provided bins: Check to see if your municipality offers free or low-cost bins, these usually look like Darth Vader’s helmet. If you are in Los Angeles you can pick one up at Griffith Park for $20.
What to Throw in It
Compost material is divided into “green/nitrogen” and “brown/carbon” material. Many people offer complex equations to make sure you maintain the proper balance of the two.
Forget all that.
Simply aim for a 50/50 mix. If your compost has a rancid smell add more “brown/carbon” material. If your bin breaks down too slowly add some more “green/nitrogen” material.
After I add “green/nitrogen” material I simply cover it up with an equal amount of “brown/carbon” material.
- Fruit and Vegetable Peelings: I store my peelings on the kitchen counter in an old air-tight coffee container until I am ready to take them out. If this doesn’t look good in your kitchen (and my wife likes to remind me that it doesn’t) click on the below image to buy a more stylish one.
- Grass Clippings
- Plant Cuttings
- Manure: Healthy animals only (horse, cow, chicken, rabbit, sheep, goat, bat). Never use human, dog or cat manure. When using manure make sure the animals have not been given any antibiotics (we are trying to breed bacteria not kill them).
- Coffee Grounds: You can throw the filter in as well if it is unbleached. Ask your local coffee shop if you can take their coffee grounds off their hands for them.
Have a sealable container in your kitchen to store your kitchen scraps before taking them to the compost. I use an old coffee can but if you are looking for something more stylish click on the above image to purchase this farmhouse compost crock.
- Dry Leaves
Things You Can Compost But…
- Meat / Fish: Many people advise against composting these items, they may smell and attract rodents but, I feel they are valuable additions to the compost because of their nutrient content. Make sure to bury them deep under carbon material. It is also advisable to only add them to “hot compost” (see below).
- Dairy: Again, this may smell and attract unwanted friends. Don’t add too much and make sure to bury it under carbon material.
- Oily Food: As long as you’re not throwing an oily pizza out every night it is o.k. to add some oily food.
- Weeds: The composting process kills many weeds and weed seeds but may not kill them all. If you have particularly persistent weeds like Bermuda grass or Japanese Knotweed do not put them in your pile.
What Not to Compost
- Human and Pet Feces
- Pressure Treated Wood
Your compost pile is full of life and needs water to survive but should not be soaked. Keep it the consistency of a wrung-out sponge. Often the green material that is added holds enough water so that you do not have to add any. If your compost does become too dry add water (rainwater if possible). If your compost becomes waterlogged add more brown material.
Hot and Cold Compost/Air
Cold compost is the easiest form of compost. Simply build up your pile and let it sit until it decomposes in about one year.
Hot compost, on the other hand, takes only 2 to 3 months to finish. To create hot compost you must provide the microorganisms with more oxygen. This requires turning your compost pile. To make this job much easier, purchase a good pitchfork.
When your compost is dry, brown and crumbly it is ready to use. Simply spread it out on top of your soil, your plants will thank you.