Compost Made Easy By Our Friends at Life, From the Ground!
June 28, 20195 min read
Jamie Wren is one of the most resourceful humans we know.
She homesteads, forages for wild mushrooms, rescues farm animals and that's just on Tuesdays. She covers shifts in our kitchen, organizes resource rescue missions all over town, and is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to living a resource-aware life.
We're lucky to have her on site weekly picking up compost. Perhaps you've considered starting your own composting system, but aren't sure how. Maybe you're not sure WHY it's important to compost. Well, Jamie to the rescue! Read on for the science behind this easy way to create fertile soil and remove destructive refuse from the trash stream. It's great to keep Planet Earth in mind as well as the USA this 4th of July. Take it away, lady!
The 4th is here, and that traditionally means two things: Fireworks and food everywhere, and those are two of my favorite things! For as long as I can remember, I’ve been curious about how things work. Those vibrant flashes of colorful light are the result of metal filings burning. Different metals produce different colors! The same is true in the soils that grow our soy dogs with onions, chili, mustard, and slaw. Soils high in carbon are chocolate colored because carbon is black. Our famous Carolina clay, for example, is red due to its high amounts of iron oxides. It goes without saying that we need to be mindful of our safety and those around us including the heroes among us dealing with PTSD, our planet and all life on it. Not as obvious though, is that we should also be mindful of our impact when enjoying all these hotdogs. On the 4th, we eat a whole lot of hotdogs: 150 million in total. And on the 5th? We throw away about half of the food produced to meet our high demands. In the tightly compressed landfills, food decomposing produces methane, a greenhouse gas over 20x more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat. Food breaking down anaerobically in the landfill is responsible for 34% of our country’s methane emissions. We have to stop thinking about compost as something gardeners make instead of buying fertilizer.
Food breaking down anaerobically in the landfill is responsible for 34% of our country’s methane emissions.
In a well-balanced compost heap, food scraps are primarily decomposed by aerobic organisms that do not release any methane. Reason enough for all of us to make sure our food waste is composted instead of thrown in the trash, but there’s so much more to it than that. Compost is high in plant-available nutrients, food for the fauna in the soil such as earthworms and fungi, and carbon, giving it that beautiful dark, almost pure black color. That carbon was pulled from the atmosphere by plants through photosynthesis. Adding compost to our soil is one of the rare chances we as individuals have to tangibly return CO2 to the soils where it was before fossil fuels were dug up and burned. We should be composting all of our food waste, whether we have a garden or not. But if you’re like me, you’ve tried composting once, or maybe several times before, and it didn’t work right. Today, we are going to focus less on “How to compost” and more on “how composting works”.
Adding compost to our soil is one of the rare chances we as individuals have to tangibly return CO2 to the soils where it was before fossil fuels were dug up and burned.
Stuff rots just fine without our help every single day, but with our help, it can be composted. Composting is the practice of controlled decomposition. There are probably as many strategies and approaches to making compost as there are bacteria in an average teaspoon of compost.
Between 100 million and 1 billion bacteria on the average exist in just one teaspoon of productive soil, so let’s use that as a conservative estimate. The point is, there truly isn’t a “right” or “wrong” way to compost anymore than there is a right or wrong way to garden. The best compost system for you is the one that fits your space and your needs. For many of us, a simple worm bin fits the bill. Purpose-built compost tumblers are handy if you don’t have a lot of space, or if the idea of manually turning compost with a pitchfork isn’t exciting to you. Unless you have the space for an enormous pile though, you’ll want to make some kind of bin or bay to help you build your compost taller, rather than wider. I just use a few pallets screwed together. There are many approaches, but a key thing to remember is that your compost heap needs to be at least about a cubic meter in size, so about a yard long and wide, and a yard tall. Worm bins can be any size. Those squared-off kitty litter buckets make excellent worm bins!
Once you have your compost system figured out, it’s time to start feeding it. You’ll often hear a lot about C:N ratios (carbon to nitrogen), “browns”, “greens”, turning schedules, and a bunch of forbidden ingredients. Don’t let this overwhelm you! Remember, everything rots. But a brown autumn leaf sure seems to rot a lot slower than a wilted leaf of lettuce, unless you mix them up in a compost heap. Simply put, organic waste high in nitrogen is the stuff you wouldn’t just leave out because it starts to rot. Organic waste high in carbon, but low in nitrogen like leaves and wood chips can last a long time before breaking down. So what are all the C:N ratios really about? Not enough “green” inputs high in nitrogen in your pile and pretty much nothing happens. It just sort of sits there for a few years. Not enough “brown” inputs high in carbon but low in nitrogen will yield an unpleasant slime and emit terrible odors, attract pests, and emit methane, just like at the landfill. A pile that gets too wet or left unturned too long will become starved of oxygen and behave like a pile without enough carbon. The solution to a stinky heap, no matter which of these issues is the culprit, is to just add some dry carbon as you turn it.
I’ll admit, this practice takes effort, but we cannot afford to continue letting our organic matter end up in the landfill.