Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Composting Convenience

Official instructions for “How to Build a Compost Pile” (see links on this Cornell Univ. page) are readily available, but many people do not follow them exactly, including me. The problems with the official instructions usually reside in the minimum recommended size combined with the idea of having all the ingredients on hand to build the completed pile in one session.

The recommended minimum size is 3 feet x 3 feet x 3 feet, but getting enough organic matter together all at once to create this size of pile, which should be built of alternating layers of green and brown organic matter, requires advance planning, and it may require that Autumn leaf-fall has already begun. If the pile is to be started in the Spring, having enough “brown” matter on hand could be a problem.

For many of us, the brown matter, which could include dried leaves or straw, is going to be leaves because there is no straw around unless we buy it, which is unlikely to happen. The green can be grass clippings and/or kitchen scraps, but so many people use mulching mowers these days that lawn clippings are getting harder to come by, and some lawns may be contaminated by herbicides and pesticides. In addition, saving huge amounts of kitchen scraps for weeks on end to use in a big compost building session is just too stinky a proposition to seriously contemplate. When I have a milk jug full of kitchen scraps that is becoming slimier and smellier by the day, I just want to move it out of the house any way I can.

The lists of acceptable ingredients are longer than just leaves, straw, grass clippings, and kitchen veggie/fruit scraps, but these are the primary bulk ingredients that many people (the lazy ones, like me), especially town and suburban dwellers, are going to have easy access to. As a result, I build my compost pile a little at a time, day by day, and it only exceeds 3 x 3 x 3 ft. in the Autumn, when I have picked up bags of my neighbors’ leaves off the side of the road before the city trash-truck can get to them.

Other people have created other work-arounds for their composting activities, with varying levels of success. Someone asked Saturday, at the Extension office open house, whether a compost pile could be smaller than 3 x 3 x 3 ft. and still work. The answer, of course, is yes; however, it won’t work the same way as a larger pile. A pile built gradually, the way mine is, never heats up to the weed-seed-killing, pathogen-killing temperatures a properly built pile does, so what goes in it should be modified. No weed seeds and no sick plants should be included. Also, a smaller pile is unlikely to work as fast.

One of my friends has been composting her kitchen scraps in five gallon buckets. These freeze at various times in the winter, so it is a safe bet that not much decomposition is going on at those times, and even in other cold-but-non-freezing times, the decomposition is going to be at a lower rate. A bigger problem with the buckets is that they are plastic and therefore not rodent-proof. One day my friend opened one of her buckets and discovered a very large Norway rat enjoying her apple cores and carrot tops! This was not a pleasant discovery. As a result, she is switching to rodent-resistant metal buckets, even though she has to pay actual money for these (plastic buckets can be had for free).

Someone else mentioned at Saturday’s open house that she had been sheet-composting by spreading her kitchen scraps on top of the garden. In the best of all possible worlds, this would work, eventually, but we live in a world inhabited by, as we now know, rodents, and possums, and coons, all of which really like those scraps. At some point, her neighbors are likely to wonder where all the wildlife is coming from.

One way to avoid pile-building while still getting some nutrients into the garden would be to dig little trenches right in the garden to dump those scraps into, then cover them up with dirt so that the scraps don’t make such a tempting salad bar for all the critters in the neighborhood. The scraps would decompose underground.

Another possibility for someone who is only composting as a way to transform kitchen scraps into fertilizer is to make a worm-composting bin to keep indoors. The City Farmer organization in Vancouver has posted online step-by-step, illustrated instructions for worm composting. I have kept a worm bin before, and it isn’t at all complicated.

Now, I have two compost systems. One is a regular, two-compartment pile that is bounded by chicken wire except across the front. We pile stuff in one side, then turn it every now and then by forking it all over to the other side. This moves the fresher organic matter from the top of the old pile to the bottom of the new pile. This wire bin system is at least 15 years old and mostly works just fine. One problem with this system is that, in winter, when decomposition is slower and the scraps remain intact longer, critters are attracted to the pile.

We have (so far!) overcome this problem by creating a “winter composter” out of a large metal garbage can that has holes knocked in it for air flow. We put a layer of leaves and dirt on the bottom, dump our kitchen scraps into the can, cover with more leaves and dirt, then repeat when we have more scraps, taking care to keep the can’s contents damp. The lid keeps the critters from crawling in through the top, and the metal can seems to be resistant to chewing.

When the metal can is full, we haul it (it is heavy!) to the wire compost bins and dump it out. Again, the fresher bits end up on bottom, and the oldest bits, which are usually pretty well composted so they are not especially attractive to critters, end up on top of the pile. We usually need to dump the full can two or three times before warmer weather comes back around and we go back to using the wire bins.

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