We have worked very hard at lowering the amount of garbage we throw out every week. As a family of four, we have thrown out 1 kitchen sized trash bag per week for about 2 years now. One of the secrets to our success in this area is composting. By composting, you can literally turn your trash into treasure!
To get started, you will need a location for your compost. There are several fancy bin style composters on the market, and I know several people who are quite happy with theirs. The prices range all over the map, depending on many factors. I am in no way capable of rating them, because I have never used one. If you are interested in keeping your composter in the garage or basement, then you will most likely want to look into some type of bin. My preferred method is to place the compost outside. We’ve had several different setups at different houses. At our first house, there was a bin already built in the raised bed garden. It was salvaged wood, I believe, in the shape of a rectangle, about 3.5 feet long and 2 feet wide. It was about 1.5 feet tall and had a hinged lid with a hole cut in the top. The hole made it easy to drop food in and the hinged lid made maintenance and removal easier. The enclosed structure kept the compost hotter which speeds the composing process. Most sources say to make your space at least 3 by 3 by 3, but our first bin worked just fine. Our second house, we used a plastic outdoor trash can. We poked holes in the lid and down the sides to allow air to flow. We cut a hole in the front of the can at the bottom that looked like a mouse door. This one worked fairly efficiently too. At our third house, we had 4 posts in a square with plastic garden netting around it to hold everything in. At this house, we just have a heap in the yard. The heap in the yard has been the cheapest and my favorite method so far.
Once you have a location, you will need to add your compost material. It is generally considered best to put a layer of sticks and twigs at the bottom of the pile to allow air to flow through from the bottom. Next, you want to add yard waste and food waste. You want an approximate ratio of 2/3 yard waste to 1/3 food waste.
Yard waste is grass clippings, leaves, weeds, dead heads from flowers, plant stalks from vegetation that is done producing for the year, and that general type of thing. You want to avoid adding things like poison ivy, which can still add the oils to your compost and give you poison ivy for years to come. You also want to avoid diseased and chemically treated matter. If you have a fungus attacking your plants, you don’t want to add it to your compost which you will use to fertilize more things next year. Likewise, if you add chemically treated matter, the chemicals will leach into your compost. Even if you aren’t concerned with gardening organically, the chemicals can alter the bacteria growing in your compost pile and stop the composting action. You can also add animal bedding, manure, paper, natural fiber cloth or dryer lint, saw dust and small twigs under this category.
Food waste is simply food that you don’t eat. The peels and ends of vegetables that are cut off when preparing them, spoiled raw fruits and vegetables, and even leftover steamed or roasted veggies that don’t get eaten in time are great additions. You want to avoid fats, oils and dairy products. Other than that, food is fair game. Egg shells are great for the compost. Grains are fine, if you aren’t using them for some reason. Pretty much anything that you are going to throw away can be examined for the compost pile. If it doesn’t have fats, oils or dairy, go for it!
Now you just need to maintain the pile! It needs to be stirred occasionally, with a shovel or a pitchfork. The more often you turn it, up to once a day, the faster it will compost. If you neglect this step altogether, it will continue to compost, just more slowly. You need to make certain that your compost doesn’t dry out too much. If it is a heap, it is easy to keep it fairly damp as the rain will wet it for you and the compost itself will hold it in. If you have a bin or a box, you will need to add water regularly to keep it damp – not drenched. If you notice bugs or a bad smell, you don’t have enough yard waste to food, or else you just need to stir it up a bit more. The inside of your heap should be hot. If you are stirring regularly, you may notice that snow will melt on top of your heap. If the inside is cool, your ratios are off somehow. See if you can figure out what is missing – yard waste, food waste or water. For the most part, it is a pretty low maintenance process. You can work at it a lot and it will go faster or you can mostly ignore it when you aren’t tossing some scraps in and it will compost slower.
You can add in some fun things to make it go faster or slower, if you are just itching for something to do. You can get compost worms, which eat the compost and turn it into dirt faster within their own systems. It is amazing how much compost a small group of worms can make in just a few months! The worms are specific, though. You want red wrigglers or tiger worms. These are two different names for the same worms. Night crawlers are not the same thing. I have had great success with getting my worms from freecycle. You can also add compost starter, which will sort of jump start the process by adding in good bacteria to your compost. This is not a necessary step, though, as your compost will make its own good bacteria in time. The starter just makes the process faster.
Depending on your bin or heap, how big it is, and what all you’ve put into it, you will have compost in a few months to a year. You will know it is compost when it stops looking like yard waste and food waste and instead looks like dark, fluffy, good smelling dirt. When it is black, it is good dirt and it is ready to use.
And once you’ve got the compost, what do you do with it? You can use it to amend the soil in flower beds and gardens to make it good for growing plants in. You can use it to fertilize your lawn. You can use it to mulch around plants and trees. You can put it in a cloth bag and submerge the bag in a bucket of water for a few days to let the nutrients pass into the water, then use this water to water your plants (including houseplants) as compost tea. You can give it away to friends and family as great fertilizer. You can put it on freecycle, if you can’t come up with something else to do with it!
I’d love to see pictures and hear stories about your composting experiences! Do you have a bin that you can rate for us? Did you build your own bin? What great tips do you have for composting?