My 4 year-old son and I were eating bananas on our patio last week when he carelessly threw the peel into our small flower bed/vegetable garden. Rather than scold the young whipper-snapper for sullying our tablecloth-sized, weed-laden attempt at sustainable living, I used the opportunity to teach a lesson about giving our “waste” a second life. I turned to the youngster and half-jokingly asked, “What’re you starting a compost heap or something?”
Sponge-like and inquisitive as he is, he immediately replied, “Daddy, what’s a calm postheep?” I’m glad you asked. Perhaps one of the easiest ways to preserve landfill space while creating nutrient-rich soil for your garden, composting is simple, useful and well worth the minimum investment.
What you Need to Get Started:
Firstly, choose a bin system or specific area of the yard where the compost will be out of the way. This link provides several different options depending on what your are composting and how you would like to use the final product
Beyond the bin, good composting is a matter of providing the proper environmental conditions for microbial life. Compost is made by billions of microbes (fungi, bacteria, etc.) that digest the yard and kitchen wastes (food) you provide for them. If the pile is cool enough, worms, insects, and their relatives will help out the microbes. All of these will slowly make compost out of your yard and kitchen wastes under any conditions. However, like people, these living things need air, water, and food. If you maintain your pile to provide for their needs, they’ll happily turn your yard and kitchen wastes into compost much more quickly.
What to Compost:
Actually, it’s usually easier to leave grass clippings in the lawn, where they will decompose and benefit the soil directly. However, they can be composted, too. Be cautious to add grass clippings in very thin layers, or thoroughly mix them in with other compost ingredients, as they otherwise tend to become slimy and matted down, excluding air from the pile. Fresh grass clippings are high in nitrogen, making them a ‘green’ compost ingredient.
Farmers are often very happy to get rid of spoiled hay bales that have been out in the rain, and will give them away or sell them at a low price. Grass hay will probably contain a lot of seed, which can resprout in your garden. Alfalfa hay will compost very readily. The greener the hay, the more nitrogen it contains. Be sure that any hay you plan to compost is well-moistened prior to addition to the pile.
Fruit and vegetable peels/rinds, tea bags, coffee grounds, eggshells, and similar materials are great stuff to compost. They tend to be high in nitrogen (this puts them in the ‘greens’ category), and are usually quite soft and moist. As such, kitchen wastes need to be mixed in with drier/bulkier materials to allow complete air penetration. Many people compost their kitchen wastes in enclosed worm bins or bury them 8″ deep in the soil, to keep from attracting pests to an outdoor compost pile (check with your local government to see if it has regulations about this — some forbid open piles containing food wastes because of the pest issue). Avoid composting meat scraps, fatty food wastes, milk products, and bones — these materials are very attractive to pests.
If you live in an area where autumn leaves are still thrown away as garbage, cash in on the bounty each year by acquiring your neighbors’ leaves! Generally, leaves are an excellent compost ingredient. They can mat down and exclude air, though, so be sure that any clumps are thoroughly broken up, or that the leaves are only used in very thin layers. Ash and poplar/cottonwood leaves can raise soil pH if used in compost — this may not be beneficial if your soil is already alkaline, as many soils are in the West (especially in semiarid and arid climates). Dead, dry leaves are in the ‘browns’ category, while living green leaves contain abundant nitrogen and are considered ‘greens’.
Dry straw is a good material for helping to keep a compost pile aerated, because it tends to create lots of passageways for air to get into the pile. Be sure to wet the straw, as it is very slow to decompose otherwise. Straw is definitely a ‘brown’ and also requires mixture with ‘greens’ to break down quickly. Many stables use straw as a bedding material for horses — straw that has undergone this treatment is mixed in with horse manure and breaks down more quickly.
WEEDS AND OTHER GARDEN WASTES
Many types of weeds and old garden plants can be composted. Avoid weeds that have begun to go to seed, as seeds may survive all but the hottest compost piles. Some types of weeds are ‘pernicious weeds’ and will resprout in the compost pile — avoid using these unless they are thoroughly dead. Green weeds are (you guessed it) a ‘green’, while dead brown weeds are a ‘brown’.
WOOD CHIPS AND SAWDUST
Wood products belong in the ‘browns’ category, because they are fairly low in nitrogen. Some sawdusts, especially from broadleaved/deciduous trees, will break down quickly in an active compost pile. Others, especially from coniferous trees, will take longer to decay. Stir sawdust thoroughly into the pile or use very thin layers. Coarse wood chips will very slowly decay, and are probably better used as mulch unless you have lots of time to wait. Be sure not to compost chips or sawdust from any sort of chemically-treated wood — you could be adding toxics like arsenic to your pile if you do.
What NOT to Compost:
While it’s tempting to throw anything that decomposes into the compost heap, avoid including the following items to keep your garden healthy while reducing hungry scavenger traffic: diseased plants, human wastes, meat, bones, fatty food wastes, pernicious weeds and pet wastes.
Composting can be done 24/7, 365 and has no negative consequences so get on the patio and encourage the kids to start throwing banana peels, apple cores and eggshells…into the proper receptacle of course.
Posted by: Nick