Friday, November 6, 2009

Good dirt.

It’s beginning to feel like fall here in South Carolina. Last night, I covered my newly planted strawberries and lettuces in case we had a freeze. Leaves completely cover our yard...we must have a hundred trees, easily. The jack-o’-lanterns are moldering on the front steps. Don’t you just love when those gorgeous, orange works of art turn black and smooshy? It's not very festive. We so rarely use our front door that I often forget about the pumpkins until they become a very unwelcoming addition to our welcome mat.

I’ve always felt a little blue, tossing the pumpkins in the trash the week after Halloween. Maybe it’s because the kids worked so hard designing their jack-o’-lanterns. Maybe I feel guilty, since it’s wasteful to carve them for Halloween and throw them away a few days later. Maybe my angst is more psychologically driven--tossing the pumpkins signals winter coming--at least, to me. I’m not a happy winter person.

Until recently, I never really worried about throwing the pumpkins in the trash. Honestly, the pumpkins get nasty, the big plastic garbage bag comes out, I hold my breath and roll the disgusting decomposing orbs into the bag, pray
ing that the bag doesn’t break on the way to the trash can.

Think about it, though--why is it OK to throw pumpkins into the trash when yard debris isn’t allowed? In fact, some communities, such as Loveland, Colorado, offer recycling services for pumpkins. My community doesn’t offer standard recycl
ing pick up for newspaper or bottles, so I won’t hold my breath for them to pick up moldy pumpkins.

Still, you can recycle that pumpkin. Compost it.

We’ve been composting for a long time...unofficially. We’d ju
st pile up leaves and grass clippings in the forest, turn it occasionally, and end up with great compost after about a year. Now that we’ve begun our eco-experiment, I’ve become compulsive about composting to reduce our trash output. You know what? Between stepping up our composting and recycling efforts, we are producing only about two 13-gallon bags of trash per week. I’m pretty proud of our reduced trash!

Composting is a fantastic alternative for turning yard and kitchen waste--and even paper--into rich “black gold.” Tiny organisms--bacteria, fungi, and protozoa--break down kitchen and landscape waste into dark, rich, decomposed org
anic matter. Compost improves soil--add it to clay, it helps break up the heavy soil and enriches it with nutrients. Add compost to sandy soil, and it helps the soil retain water and nutrients. Improving soil is the best way to ensure healthy plants.

Take a look at the new garden I’m working on--a potager, aka French Kitchen Garden.

See the soil I’m dealing with? Can’t grow anything in that red clay. Now take a look at what we added:

We’ll be eating well with that rich soil.

I know that not everyone is as obsessive about gardening as I am...but even if you only plant pansies around your mailbox or marigolds in your window box, you can benefit from compost. If you don’t garden at all, you can still compost to reduce the amount of trash you contribute to the landfill--and offer your compost to your gardening neighbors or advertise it on Craigslist or Freecycle. Or send it to me, I always need compost!

I know what you’re thinking: composting is a huge project. It’s expensive, it’s time-consuming, it stinks, we’ll have rats in our yard, the neighbors will complain...I know. I also thought those thoughts.

I was wrong.

Composting is as simple as collecting leaves, grass clippings, and food scraps in an open pile in your yard...or as complex as building a three-bin compost system, with a companion leaf-mold collector. You can invest hundreds of dollars on composters offered by companies that advertise “black gold in as little as two weeks!” Or you can pick up pallets free of charge and construct your own rustic composting bin. There are even composting systems available for apartmen
t or condo dwellers.

Our composting system evolved, from the open pile hidden in the forest, to a fabulous design of Swiss precision and engineering. When I mentioned to Peter that I wanted an official compost bin, thinking we’d use some spare pallets fr
om our company and slap it together in an hour...little did I imagine the result:

“Slapping together” is not really in Peter’s personality. He gets his perfectionism honestly: many years ago, right after Kristen was born, his parents were visiting. We had just remodeled our unfinished basement, and I mentioned that we needed a handrail for the stairs. I thought--go to Lowe’s, buy a piece of wood, slap some paint on it--voila!

You should see the handrail crafted by my’s a thing of beauty. I think he painted at least 10 coats of varnish on it.
Anyway, those Swiss men don’t do half-assed work. I wanted a compost bin, and by God--I got the premium version.

Your system needs to fit your personality, your needs, and your neighborhood. If you can shake hands with your next door neighbors from your bedroom window, then you might want an enclosed system located near the back of your property to preserve neighborly peace. If you live on a farm or have some acreage, an open pile might be fine for you. If you garden as much as I do, a three-bin system is perfect: one bin contains compost that’s ready for use; the second bin is compost that’s almost done cooking; and the third is the active pile where we deposit our scraps and such.

So, first of all...

What can go into the compost pile?

  • Leaves, pine needles, grass clipping, flowers and garden plants.
  • Kitchen scraps--fruit and vegetable peelings or cuttings, crushed eggshells, tea bags, coffee grounds and filters.
  • Shredded woody yard trimmings, small amounts of sawdust--but add a pound of nitrogen per 100 pounds of sawdust.
  • Paper towels, shredded newspaper--although I often save my newspaper to layer as a weed barrier under mulch.
Composting no-nos:
  • Clippings treated with herbicides or pesticides should not be used in a vegetable garden.
  • Meat, bones and fatty foods--no oils, cheese, or cooking oil. Those will attract critters.
  • Pet waste or human waste. (Really? Don’t want to grow your tomatoes in Fido’s poop?) Although, if your pet is a herbivore, you can add its waste to the pile--and it enriches the compost.
  • Weeds that have gone to seed or plants that are diseased. Technically, a compost pile should get hot enough to kill those seeds or insect-infestations...but why risk it? It can be tough managing the temperature accurately enough to eliminate problems.
Green + Brown = Black Gold
Ready for biology class? No, me neither. Here’s the basic information that you need to make sure that your compost has the right levels of carbon and nitrogen to ensure those little microorganisms thrive and the scraps break down quickly:

  • Leaves, straw, and sawdust are high in carbon--”browns”
  • Grass clippings, manure, and vegetable scraps are higher in nitrogen--”greens”
  • For the organic materials to decompose easily, the microorganisms that do the work need about 1 part nitrogen for every 30 parts carbon.
  • If the carbon to nitrogen ratio is too high, it will take a long time for the matter to decompose.
There’s a great chart that shows the average carbon to nitrogen ratio in organic materials, plus extensive information about composting:

How big?

Bigger is a point. The larger the surface area, the faster the microorganisms can work to make matter decompose. Chopping or shredding yard waste, such as leaves, helps increase the surface area.

An ideal size for a compost pile is at least 3 feet x 3 feet x 3 feet. Piles smaller than this can’t hold in enough heat for decomposition, and piles larger than 5 cubic feet don’t allow enough air to reach the center of the pile and the microbes. It’s also hard to turn a pile that’s too large...and you’ll need to turn it more often. Stick with a manageable size.

Turn, turn, turn.

Turning the pile is essential to supply oxygen to the composting organisms. Without adequate oxygen, you’ll have a smelly pile of material that can be potentially toxic to plants. If your compost pile smells rotten--it might not be getting enough air.

Water, please.

Moisture management is also an important element in composting. Too much water and the microorganisms will drown. Too little moisture will result in slow decay, meaning you’ll be waiting a long time for rich soil. You’ll want the compost pile to feel about as moist as a wrung-out sponge, according to the Clemson Extension website. (Which, by the way, is fabulous. You’ll find answers to all sorts of gardening dilemmas.)

Hot enough?

The center of the compost pile will heat up as the material decomposes. The interior temperature should range between 90 and 140 degrees. Yes, there are special long-stemmed thermometers to measure the temp. Do I own one? Nope. We've still managed to make great compost without the gadgets.

Is it done yet?
Just like any recipe, the final product is the result of its ingredients. Depending on the coarseness of the materials, size of the pile, amount of air and moisture, your compost can be ready in as little as a month--or it might take as along as a year. Honestly, our compost--which is turned minimally and basically left on its own to decompose--is typically ready in about 4-6 months. It’s good stuff...loamy and full of worms. Yum.

Now what?

Use compost to amend your soil, top dress lawns, enrich soil around trees and shrubs, or--as we do--create new raised beds. You’ll want to separate any large chunks out of the compost. You can even use the chunky compost to make compost tea--a weak nutrient solution that can be used to fertilize young plants. Put the compost into a cloth bag and allow to soak in a 5 gallon bucket of water for approximately two to three days. The resulting liquid should smell sweet and earthy. If it smells sour or rotten--do not use on plants. Return it to the compost pile. Free, non-petroleum based fertilizer...don't you feel greener already?

Final advice:

When you collect your kitchen scraps, you’ll definitely want a container with a lid. You’ll also want to empty it. Often. I, unfortunately, learned the hard way that kitchen scraps, like skin from pears or over-ripe tomatoes, can quickly lead to a nasty fruit fly infestation. Seriously, get a can with a lid. You’ll thank me.

Better yet, keep your container outside if it’s convenient. I have a bowl that I use during food prep to collect scraps, which I immediately dump into the container on our porch. I usually empty the container into the compost pile at least three times per week. Just don't let an open container sit for too long. Fruit flies are a pain to get rid of.

Also, remind your husband/significant other that he/she shouldn't bring the large container into the kitchen after it's been sitting outside with scraps in it to, oh, make it easier to dispose of pumpkin guts. I couldn't figure out why we had a swarm of fruit flies in the kitchen--until someone confessed (after a few glasses of wine) what he did. Argh.

So get ready! Except for the fruit flies debacle, composting is an easy, non-smelly, non-rodent attracting, eco-rific way to reduce your trash output, build fabulous soil, and enrich the environment with your selfless efforts.

1 comment: