Monday, November 23, 2009

Come on, and Compost with me!

If you grew up in the city or the close-in suburbs, you may think of composting as an inconvenience when you are used to using the disposal or just scraping it into the trash (or into the dog's dish!). But, composting can be really easy once you've got it going, even if you have a small yard or only a balcony! Here is a quick start-up guide for composting from small-scale to large scale!
Why compost? Well, many reasons: it reduces the stinky waste filling your trash can so you don't have to take it out as much, less waste to the dump, it's friendlier on your drain and the end source down the water pipeline, it is natural super food for your garden (flowers or veggies!), and it can be sort of fun! You don't want to use compost instead of soil or potting soil, you want to use it in addition to.

Let's start out small... For those with a balcony or patio
There are some really cute countertop composting pails like THESE at Lehman's (I love this store!) - there is a Bamboo one (pictured) and a Stainless Steel one. There is also one you can put in the cupboard under your sink - HERE. They are really simple and require no more effort than scraping the food into the trash or disposal! Many of them have charcoal filters to cut down on any smell that may try to escape. You could also use pretty much any container you already have, or even a zip-lock bag for your waste. If you have a balcony or patio (or if you live in a building downtown, ask your landlord if you can use the roof!), you can periodically dump your pail into a small outdoor-safe metal trash can with a lid or a rubbermade storage container. You will want to drill or punch small holes in the sides and a few on the bottom first, and then put some sort of a tray with sides underneath so that the liquid can drain out and be collected. Not too many, and not too big! Basically, you want a little bit of air circulation on the sides or lid, and then just enough for some of the liquid to drain at the bottom. To personalize it, you can paint it, or when you drill/punch the holes, try making them into a design!
Step 1 - fill your bin or can 1/2 full of fall leaves gathered (you can get some from the park, or see if someone on Craigslist has leaves to get rid of!) - if none are available, you can use garden dirt from the store just to get you started.
Step 2 - If you've used fall leaves, pour water over them until they are wet, but you don't want a huge tub full of water down there, and stir the leaves so that they are evenly wet. If you used the dirt, you will only need to add water if you think the dirt seems too dry - if it still somewhat sticks together in your hand, it is ok, but if it just completely falls through your fingers, add a little bit of water to it.
Step 3 - Here's the good part - add your kitchen waste! Coffee grounds from your brewed coffee is an excellent addition! Each time you add a layer of food, you will want to bury it under some of the leaves/dirt and try to work it down each time, turning the clean leaves or soil onto the top, and the older compost towards the middle. This helps hide odor, and assists in the decomposition. You can use kitchen tongs and a large serving fork or serving spoon to help you out! You also want to make sure you are adding a god mix of different food & organic waste, like green leafy stuff as well as other food. You can add trimmings from your houseplants to accomplish this too.
Step 4 - The harvest! In about 3 months time if it's warm out, or 5 months when it's cool out, you should have some good compost down near the bottom. You can either dig it out manually and put the dark stuff into a bowl or pail, or, if you have room, you could even pour it out onto a tarp or old towel and separate the compost from the still-recognizable leaves and put the leaves back into your compost bin. You could also get a 2nd trash can and dump it into the can, scoop off the top, and then dump the rest back into your compost can! From here, you can mix your compost into your flower pots, patio garden boxes, mini herb garden pots, houseplant pots, etc.!
Also, the liquid that drains out at the bottom is called Compost Tea! You can use this as extra nutrients for your garden too! You can start saving it in an old milk jug with a lid and it's easy to pour it onto your plant's dirt periodically.
Here is a link for some compost "troubleshooting"! HERE

Let's take it one baby step further...A small yard
Read the steps above, but let's change it up a bit! You may have the room to have one of these automatic compost systems like they have HERE, or HERE, or find them on eBay or Craigslist, where you can go out there and rotate with ease! These can be a bit spendy, but it can help you to create compost in weeks rather than months. If you are not prepared to purchase one of these, there is also a more simple design to help keep your compost in one place HERE, or you can build your own mini fenced in area, or you can do the trashcan idea from above, but you probably have room to use a full-sized can instead of a mini one! You might also have fallen leaves from a tree in your yard or your outdoor plants, lawn clippings, and some gound earth to mix in too. Find some earthworms from your yard, and put them in with your compost - they help speed up the composting process for you! You can even disguise your compost can by painting it to match it's surroundings, and you can have it in between some of your shrubbery or flowers... or, get artsy with it and have fun painting it to fit your style and make it more like garden art!
You also have the option to do a worm tray method - a luxury condo for worms! You can get the idea for how it works HERE(or just buy one if you don't want to build one!). It requires some construction though! Imagine a chest of drawers and the bottom of each "drawer" is metal mesh (large enough for worms to pass through the holes) instead of solid, and no gaps between the drawers outer edges so the worms can't get out - you only want them to be able to move up or down, and not sideways and escape from your tower. The bottom drawer will be where you collect the compost, and also have a tray underneath to collect your Compost Tea! Start with a whole bunch of worms at the bottom with a mixture of leaves, dirt and your food waste and let the worms live and eat off that combination. Then, you move on to the next drawer up and add some leaves, a little bit of dirt and then your kitchen waste, until that drawer is full, and move on to the next drawer up, and so on. The worms will eat and shed castings (great for compost!) and then naturally migrate up to the next drawer up, and then up, and then up! You can use the compost from the bottom drawer when it's ready, and then move all the other drawers down, and put the empty one on top and then fill that one up. Just keep rotating the drawers!

The typical suburban yard...
Read all the steps above, and the tips for both the no-yard and small yard above. You probably have the option to have an exposed compost contained with a fencing material like THIS, or like THIS, or a larger tray system like the one above, or even like THIS -sorry if my examples are annoying to click to, but it's easier with a picture and description, and that way it's easier to build your own! The exposed version is very easy and low maintenance and building one is very simple - just start a pile of leaves and lawn clippings, fence it in with fencing material of your choice (make sure the holes or slits are not large enough for animals to get in), and then follow the same basic steps from above! Just turn your pile periodically, add moisture if it needs it, and just keep adding your layers, and dig out the "good stuff" from the bottom! You can also add pine shavings or straw to your pile to help absorb odor (I like the smell of pine shavings better though!). Don't add anything non-organic or containing chemicals because it can leech into the soil. Earthworms will naturally find your compost pile with this method, but you can also put some in manually if you'd like! This is what we had at our old house, next to our garden.

And now... The Queen Mother of Compost piles!
It is like the suburban yard, only with multiple working piles, contained within an open-air structure, with access doors! Of course, my husband has to go to the extreme with almost everything he does - not that it's a bad thing, but sometimes I just have to laugh! So, this is our compost "pile": imagine 3 large horse stalls with doors, topless, with solar outdoor lighting attached to the top so we can go out there at night. We have a lot of yard debris and also chicken coop poop/pine shavings, as well as our regular kitchen waste. We just open the door to the pile to turn it or take what we want from it. Before we got this property, we didn't need a large setup like this! The reason we separated into 3 piles is so that the pile is not too large to turn, and we can have them composting in 3 different stages. Maybe if we get bored, we can try experimenting with each pile to see what kind of added items get better (or different) results... like a science experiment!

P.S. This thing is super-duper expensive, but just wanted to show you how cute THIS compost bin is, shaped and painted like a pig and you roll it around the yard to rotate the goodies inside! Maybe you can make one of your own?!
If you have other compost tips, let me know!

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