Saturday, February 14, 2009

Composting 101

I mentioned my new compost bins recently so I thought I would elaborate a bit on what I compost, how, and why. (This is a picture of my kitchen compost container.)

Composting came up several times at Master Gardener meetings I'd attended shortly after we moved in our home. I'd never composted growing up and didn't know anyone who did, so this was a foreign concept to me. Five years ago it must have been a foreign concept to alot of people in this area of the country because I could find next to no information on how to do it. These days information is everywhere as this idea has caught on like wildfire.

Composting basics -

  • Find a corner of your yard that receives a decent amount of sun daily and, if you want to compost in a chicken wire bin, fairly hidden from the main yard. But, don't put it too far out of sight or it will be out of mind, as well!

  • Construct or purchase your bin.

  • Place untreated yard waste, non-meat kitchen scraps, and any other bio-degradable material you have into the bin.

  • Turn the pile periodically.

  • Reap the rewards of a mineral and nutrient rich top dressing for your established garden or construct a new garden with it!

Construction costs can be minimal if you have scrap materials hanging around but the bin can be as elaborate as you desire. Some are made from a few posts and chicken wire and some from redwood decking with bottoms and lids. There are many types available for purchase on the market and each with have it's own gadgets or gizmos. Some are rolling barrels, some are mounted and have hand cranks while others are large plastic bins.

My current bins are repurposed black, 32-gallon, rolling trash cans. A rolling bin would be great to enabled movement within the yard, without multiple shovelings. We live in the heart of a large urban area, but have a huge wildlife population due mostly to our neighborhoods grand, old, pecan trees, so I felt that something lidded was called for. The color black was chosen due to the extra heat it retains and this helps to speed up the "cooking" or disintegration process for the compost.

Modifications were modest. We poked holes randomly throughout the garbage can to allow aeration of the compost and changed out the flimsy standard plastic wheels into lawn mower wheels of the same size.

The problems came when it was time to turn the pile, which is recommended daily, weekly or monthly depending on how quickly you expect results. I could fit the pitchfork inside the trash can, but flipping the compost was next to impossible once the bin was half full. For the past several months I have been adding material but have done next to no flipping. This results in extremely slow composting and removal of the highly composted material the the bottom is going to be a chore. (This would be no problem if I could lift 200+ pounds, but I can't without throwing out my back. At which point I couldn't garden, so you see the dilemma!)

These problems led me to search for an economical alternative. Trust me, there are hundreds of ideas out there. The problem is to find something that works within your range of knowledge and to find materials that you can obtain without going over your individual budget. We're giving this project a try and I'll keep you posted as to how it turns out!

Things I compost:

  • egg shells

  • fruit and vegetable scraps - raw and unseasoned

  • tea bags

  • coffee grounds and filters

  • leaves

  • grass clippings

  • dead plants - undiseased and untreated

  • wood ash from untreated wood

  • wood shavings from untreated wood

Can you compost other things?

Certainly, this is but my meager list. I might add that my pile never has an offensive odor. In fact, with fruit scraps I find that this fragrances my yard with the fruit scent - especially pineapple!

Too avoid offensive odors and rodent problems most people recommend avoiding adding pet waste and protein based materials to the pile. If you've ever had meat go bad in your refrigerator you should understand this perfectly.

I prefer untreated wood items because I'd like to keep my pile as free from chemicals as possible. Manufacturers treat wood with a heavy dose of chemicals to keep it from rotting outside so of which is arsenic. For those of you that don't read V.C. Andrews novels - arsenic can kill you if you intake enough of it and even moderately high levels can make your life miserable with possible life long side effects.

Why do I compost?

Why throw all of that lovely, nutritious material into the garbage? Keeping all of these things for my own further use prevents me having to rush out every year and stock up on manufactured manure, compost, and formulated, chemical plant feed. The first year I saved over $100 dollars in feeding expenses and my plants looked happier.

Composting also saves expenses for your city or county because they have less waste to pick up and process. In turn, this can lower your taxes, especially if enough people do it - so be sure to get some friends in on the act!

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