Sunday, July 18, 2010

Step Three: Compost

Part of the Going Lightly One Step at a Time Series.

This one is so very easy it hardly bears repeating and yet, there are fewer people in my life that do it than I'd expect. 

Composting is not complex.  In fact, it can be as simple as having a pile - contained or not - in your yard onto which you throw all vegetable matter.  You can get more complicated if you want your compost to decompose faster, of course.  There are many sites online that will show you how to layer your compost to increase the temperature of it and increase breakdown.  They will show you how to layer the high-carbon materials with the high-nitrogen materials.  It really is a fascinating science, but it is not necessary and I will candidly admit, not one I presently have time for.

What we have time for is a large, black, thick, plastic sheet with holes in it that was given to us free by simple request from our county extension service.  In fact, my mother-in-law, being far from green, happily went along with us to pick up "hers" which she also happily gave to us.  Anyway,  this sheet is rolled into a tube and the circumference can be very narrow to very wide depending on your needs. 

We used to have ours next to the house, out of the public eye, but it got too much shade.  We moved it recently over to right beside the garden.  Genius!  It just makes sense there. And it is not really an eyesore; it just looks like it goes with the garden.  As I'm weeding or pulling out spent plants, they easily get tossed right in.

The only things you don't want to throw in your compost are any animal products (except for egg shells) or oils.  Those only serve to invite vermin.  And from experience, years ago, when I unknowingly put cheese in there, the stink was uproarious.  That smell won't happen if you "keep it clean."  Vegetable scraps, lawn clippings, leaves, paper, coffee grounds and tea bags are all things that can go into your compost.

For our family, our goal with composting is to be able to ammend our soil, but primarily it reduces waste.  Being a veg family, too, we don't even deal with animal products.

Now here may be the best tip I have for those of you who are already composting and have found nothing new with what I've shared.  I know that they sell fancy crocks for storing your vegetable scraps indoors and some of them even have carbon filters.  But what has worked for us for years is to simply use a large, old plastic container (the current one had store-bought cookies in it that someone brought to a function I attended three years ago) and keep it in your freezer.  A square or rectangular container is preferable to a round one to conserve space, but any old shape will do.  Keeping the container in the freezer will kill any bacteria that would otherwise form that creates the rotting vegetable smell and attracts fruitflies.  No fancy container needed.  No carbon filters.  When it's full, set it on the counter for a few minutes to thaw slightly so it slips out easier, and then take a leisurely stroll out to your compost and dump the frozen block.  You wanted to get outside and get a little fresh air today, anyway, didn't you?  We kept our compost bin even in the deep cold of Minnesota winters. 

So, there's really no excuse not to have a compost bin and it's just as easy as dumping your scraps into your trash bin.  Your only real effort will come when you turn your pile and that is to add oxygen to facilitate decompostion.  But you can do this as often or as little as you like, really.  We only add our compost to our family garden about once a year, so you won't find me outside with a pitchfork very often. 

There are fancy compost bins that screen the compost of the larger bits for you, but we don't have something like that either. I am not picky about not totally decomposed bits of banana peel or whatever else that make their way to my garden beds.  I happily work around the random peanut shell or peach pit. We're about as basic as it gets, but again, our goals are not primarily garden related, but waste and reuse related.  As my children get older, though, and I slowly devote less time to their schooling at home as they become more and more self-directed, I am able to spend more time cultivating food and I can see that I might get back into having a system that is more aimed at my garden than simply waste reduction.

Whatever your goals are, though, composting will fit in.  You'll reduce your waste and even if you don't have a garden, you can dig to the bottom of your pile every once in a while and pull out some "black gold" and sprinkle it on house plants, your lawn, or even donate it to that gardening neighbor of yours.  They'll love you for it!
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