Adventures in Composting
A lot of you might be considering composting, but just haven’t committed to it. You’ve got plenty of kitchen scraps, yard trimmings, and old cardboard—isn’t it silly to send that all to the landfill when you could use it to make plant food instead?
That’s what I was thinking about a year ago when I started my own pile. So, I started collecting my kitchen scraps (except for meat and dairy products) and heaping them up with cardboard, twigs, and yard trimmings. I sprinkled some soil on the pile, to introduce soil micro-organisms, and I let the pile start working.
Or, rather, NOT working.
I kept the pile moist, turned it frequently, and kept adding material to it. A few months later, though, all the twigs and carrots and chunks of cardboard in the pile were still just . . . twigs and carrots and chunks of cardboard. The yard trimmings were turning black and ‘compost-y’, and I was starting to see a few worms, but the pile still had a long way to go.
Apparently worms and bacteria don’t do well with solid objects, so I was shooting myself in the foot by adding things to the pile in chunks that were entirely too big and would take years to break down. So, I learned to shred and chop things much finer before I added them. For kitchen scraps, I found the best thing to do was to throw them in the blender with some water and pour this slurry on the compost pile—I guess bacteria and worms like smoothies just as much as we do.
Another lesson I learned the hard way is that worms, true to their reputation, do NOT like onions. I realized this because one week when I was turning the pile, I noticed a lot fewer worms wiggling out than I had seen the week before. Then I realized that I had committed the “no-no” of adding onion scraps to the pile. The onion really does seem to put them off. But after a little hiatus, luckily, they came back.
One more strategy I started using is that I started making a crude compost tea and adding it to the pile. I have a bucket underneath of our leaky hose that I use to catch excess water, so I started throwing the weeds that I pull in this water and letting them steep a bit before adding them to the compost pile. This ensures that the material going onto the pile is moist and already beginning to break down. (I realize this strategy might sound like I’m asking for mosquitoes, but so far, I haven’t found any signs of those vile beasts—maybe because I empty the bucket every few days, or maybe because I keep a Citronella plant growing right next to it on the patio.)
These strategies seem to be working, because now the pile is breaking things down much faster. The compost is wriggling with worms and judging by the smell the bacteria are thriving too. The blended kitchen waste and steeped yard waste seem to turn black and break down much faster now.
It took a year to get things underway, but I’ve finally started harvesting some good-looking loam that I believe is “finished”.
If you do things right from the beginning, you could have finished compost in a much shorter time frame. Blending your kitchen scraps, shredding your yard waste, avoiding Citrus and Onions, turning/aerating the material frequently, and keeping the pile moist all help to accelerate the process. You also need to get bacteria and worm populations established before the composting can really get underway. This can take quite a while, but you can get off to a great start if you add some on your own: red wrigglers you can find online or in most bait shops, and if you happen to know a vermicomposer already, they might hook you up with a couple of handfuls! I would also recommend adding some Bio-Tone® Starter Plus to get your population of “good” bacteria started and some Enhanced Compost Accelerator to boost those bacteria with enzymes that will increase their feeding and reproduction rates.
My next endeavor is to start a hot compost bin. Putting everything together in one big pile, as I have described here, is the “cold” way, and necessarily takes a good while to break things down. A hot compost pile relies on a much higher level of aerobic bacterial activity to decompose organic matter. This process requires good aeration, plenty of Nitrogen and natural sugars for the bacteria to feed on, and a high temperature. For this I am considering something with a black plastic chamber to capture heat. Once decomposition is underway, the bacterial activity will naturally raise the temperature even higher, creating a positive feedback loop that quickly shoots the pile’s temperature to over 100°F! The optimal temperature is between 141°F to 155°F, which has the fantastic side-effect that it kills weed seeds and many plant diseases, meaning you can hot compost a lot of things that you would never cold compost. Of course, the outside temperature is important too: hot composting really takes off in summer and tends to slow to a crawl during winter. During cooler times, it helps to put a blanket over your bin or a tarp over your pile, and this is also when that Compost Accelerator can come in handy to turn up the heat.
A hot composter is so much more efficient because it provides the optimum environment for aerobic bacteria to thrive. The other main composting organism—worms—prefer a completely different environment—one that stays cool and moist. They need less Nitrogen-rich (green) waste and can process more of that brown (Carbon-rich) waste, like cardboard or newspaper that would be too “cold” for the hot pile. I hear that worms also love Coconut Coir and coffee grounds, so I will have to get my hands on some of each.
My plan is to start composting in two separate piles—a hot compost pile, where bacteria digest my yard trimmings, weeds, fallen leaves, and Nitrogen-rich kitchen scraps, and a worm bin, where red wrigglers break down the bulk of my kitchen scraps as well as old cardboard and newspapers.