September222012

alicia-in-wonderland-photos:

Composting 101

There are so many different opinions out there about the proper way to compost.  I am not going to tell you that my method is the absolute truth, but I am going to write about what has worked best for me (and what has not) over many years of gardening.

Pile Composting:
When I was a kid, we had a vegetable garden in our backyard and a compost pile.  We would compost using the traditional method, alternating layers of greens and browns, and my dad would turn the pile periodically.  This tried and true method worked, but with somewhat slow results comparatively.  It is a lot of work to manually turn a large pile with a pitchfork, and it can be difficult at times to keep critters away from the pile.  Since we lived in a fairly urban setting, I don’t ever remember wildlife critters being much of an issue at that house.  Where my husband and I live however, we are close to a lot of wildlife preserves and undeveloped areas.  Racoons, skunks, possums, squirrels, and many other wild creatures are regularly roaming the neighborhood, and I decided that an open pile would not be a good option for us at this house.

Trash can composting:
If you can’t afford to purchase a fancy compost bin, a simple plastic trash bin can be used as a composter.  You just need to drill small holes throughout, and be sure that it has a lid.  I used this method for many years with good results.  In order to mix the composter contents, I turned the trash can on its side and rolled it around.  This got to be a little bit of a hassle as the trash can got increasingly heavy.

Compost tumbler:
This is by far my favorite method of composting.  My husband bought me the awesome compost tumbler pictured above in the first picture when we were at our old house.  I noticed an immediate difference when I made the switch from using the trash can method to the tumbler method.  It is so much easier to mix the contents in the tumbler, which leads to a more rapid decomposition process.  I usually add equal amounts of greens and browns, lightly sprinkle with a bit of water from the hose, and turn the bin frequently.  During the hot summer months, I have gotten an entire bin full of nicely broken down compost in just a few weeks.  I now am storing my excess compost in my old trash can bin as a reserve for when the composting slows down a little in the colder months (shown in second picture above).

Worm composting:
When I was using the compost tumbler at our old house, I did not get a lot of full sun in many parts of the yard year-round.  During the cooler winter months, full sun areas were scarce in our old garden, and I decided to use the compost tumbler as a large worm composter during the cold months.  I added a bunch of earth worms in with my kitchen scraps, and got tons of great earthworm castings (that I ended up bringing with me to our new garden!).

Now that we have a much larger yard, and areas with full sun year-round, I wanted to have the ability to continue to use the compost tumbler as its intended purpose year-round, and still be able to get some of those great earthworm castings.  I have read that certified master gardeners often do not use commercial fertilizers, and that most of them just feed their gardens with compost, earthworm castings (worm poop), and worm tea (worm pee).  While I had been trying to sell my husband on the concept, we came across a booth at the Orange County Fair, and I let the salesman do the pitch for me. :)  I came home that night as the proud new owner of a worm composter.  Now most of my fruit and vegetable scraps are going into the worm composter (except for citrus scraps which they do not like).  I still have plenty of composting material for the compost tumbler too!  Worm composting (or vermiculture) is also a great option for people with limited space.

Some composting lessons I have learned over the years:
1.  Browns = dried leaves, dried grass clippings, dried chipped up twigs, shredded newspaper or other paper (not the glossy pages), hair, lint from the dryer lint trap, torn up strips of cardboard, and stale bread and crackers.
2.  Greens = vegetable and fruit kitchen scraps, used tea bags, used coffee grinds and filters, fresh grass clippings, fruit juice, wine, deadheaded flowers and other fresh yard waste.
3.  To keep a good ratio of greens to browns, I make a pile of fresh yard waste that I allow dry out when I do not have enough “browns”.  During the fall, I save all of the fallen leaves from our trees in piles to add in periodically, as needed.
4.  I initially made the mistake of using dried pine needles from our new house in the compost bin, only to find out that they decompose very slowly.  These are now being repurposed as mulch in the garden instead (original post here).
5.  Contrary to popular opinion, earthworms do not belong in the compost bin when it is in full sun.  They cannot survive in hot temperatures, and the natural decomposition process of a compost bin will naturally get hotter than what they can handle.
6.  Compost bins or piles must be placed in a warm area with full sun in order to get up to a temperature hot enough to facilitate the decomposition process.
7.  Despite what you may have read on the internet, placing weeds in your compost bin is not a good idea.  In theory you can place them in the bin, but expect those same weeds to show up wherever you place the finished compost.  Weed seeds need to be heated at a temperature higher than what most compost bins and piles will ever reach in order to prevent them from germinating.  Most are quite stubborn.  I do not just throw my garden weeds away though…I use them to create my own homemade compost tea fertilizer.
8.  Even the worst quality soil can be improved with the regular addition of compost.  At our old house, the soil was quite sandy and poor quality since we about two miles from the ocean.  After much diligence with double digging the soil and adding compost regularly, I was able to make a huge difference in the soil quality.  I can only hope the new tenants enjoy gardening as well. :)
9.  Dairy and meat products should not be added to either a traditional compost pile/bin or a worm composter.  I do not recommend feeding dairy scraps to cats or dogs, but our pets are great about cleaning up any meat scraps. :)
10.  The compost pile should be kept moist, but not damp.  If you start to notice maggots in the pile (which happened to me once), this is a sign that you need more dry ingredients in the pile, and quickly.  The maggots are harmless other than their ick factor. :)
11.  Do not compost any pesticide/herbicide treated materials.  Since I had no idea what had been initially used on the lawn and plants when we moved here, I did not use any of the early waste for the compost bin.
12.  Feces from animals that eat meat products cannot be composted.  Which means, unfortunately for me, dog and cat poop cannot be used.  Waste from animals that are strict vegetarians can be used.  I hope that someday we will have a few chickens around here to help add nutrients to the compost bin. :)  My husband finds that pretty strange since I am allergic to eggs.

A special note regarding storing compost:
Composting has gotten a bad reputation lately as reports of people getting sick from homemade compost have surfaced in the media.  One thing that I noticed from my own research on these stories is that these people were not storing their compost properly.  Compost is a living, breathing material, and should not be stored in enclosed plastic bags.  If it is stored in that manner, it will become moldy, which can be dangerous.  If it is properly stored with adequate ventilation (as pictured above), it poses no health risks.  I have been making compost since I was a young child, and have never had any health issues as a result (and I was born with a somewhat weak immune system).

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