• Green Tip: DIY Composting

    Posted by   |  October 14, 2016
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    Composting is the way to complete the cycles of nutrient flow so frequently disrupted. Adding a composting project to your garden and lawn care is a perfect way to improve your plants’ lives and offset landfill accumulation. It may seem like a lot to take in, but the actual process of building compost is very intuitive and natural: you’re completing a nutrient cycle. Each compost project is unique, so repeat the practices that work and fine-tune your project as you go along.

    Bins: Establishing a location is the very first step you’ll need to take. Find a spot in your yard you’d feel comfortable designating as your composting site. It’s fine not to have an actual container if you’re composting leaves, grass, or other yard waste, but if you intend to include food materials, you’ll want some kind of solid container to keep animals out. Bins tend to run about $80-$100, or you can do it yourself. Whatever you decide, aim for a 3 ft. cubic space that can be dampened without too much trouble.

    Timing: Composted piles decompose over a wide range of timeframes, but 2-6 months is an average time. Decomposition will occur faster in the hot months, so a Fall project is a good idea to really kick off your spring garden. Starting a pile in the Spring can give your garden a boost mid-summer. Timeframes are affected by how you’re maintaining the project, see below.

    So what should you actually put inside? Most composters aim for a 1:1 or 1.5:1 ratio between browns and greens. Browns are carbon-rich material like dead leaves, branches, and twigs; greens are nitrogen-rich material like grass clippings, fruit/vegetable waste, or coffee grounds. You can compost paper products as a carbon source, but avoid adding anything glossy. Newspapers, paper towels, and cardboard are fine; your old Time magazines are not. If you do decide to add paper products, shred them first.

    Maintenance: The whole point of composting is to recycle things you consume while living your average daily life, so don’t attempt to get started with a giant pile: compost accumulation is a gradual process. As the weeks go by and you’re adding your browns and greens, aerate your pile by churning it about once a week. You pile should be damp but not soaking, so if you’ve been had low rainfall lately, give it a spray with the hose every once in a while. If solid, chunky items are visible, try to bury them under the fluffier, decomposing stuff like grass and leaves. Some people like to add worms to their compost piles. These guys help break down the material faster than just exposure would, but you don’t need them. If you do want worms, red wigglers are the best species because they’re surface dwellers who won’t bury themselves under your pile. Composting occurs in all kinds of contexts, so the best maintenance practices are the ones you see working. The goal is to see an accumulation of dark, rich, amorphous matter.

    Ready to use: If a stranger looked at your project and couldn’t tell you exactly what your compost used to be, you’re ready to use your product. The materials in your pile may be in different stages of decomposition, so using a screen to sift out large chunks is the best practice in order to only apply the best compost to your other projects (throw the large chunks back in the pile, you can use them later). Put your compost into the holes where you’ll be planting to get your garden off to a great start. You can also use it as a base for indoor potted plants, or a top-dressing to give your plants a boost mid-season. No matter how exactly you use the compost, your soil will gain nutrients and your plants will be the better for it.

    What not to compost: Meat scraps, fish, eggs, citrus, onions, paper with heavy coating, ash, sawdust, large branches (break them up with your hands first), bread products, any kind of oil (including cooking), kitty litter, the biological waste of any carnivorous pets (rodent bedding and waste are fine), walnuts, grease, tea and coffee bags (grounds are ok, bags are not).

    Neat science stuff

    • Increasing the surface area of your compost ingredients will make them break down faster. This is because an increased surface area gives microorganisms more access to the material, so they’ll consume it faster. Paper products are the slowest to decompose, so shredding them is a must. The same logic applies to large branches.
    • Your Nitrogen:Carbon ratio is important because it affects the rate at which microorganisms can work. Microorganisms have an ideal balance of nutrients just like all living things, so if you’ve got a ton of Nitrogen, they’ll only work with as much as they need. The leftovers of an abundant nutrient will just sit there.
    • Some of the do-not-compost items earn their status because microorganisms cannot break them down. Have you ever seen a plant or animal consume oily paper or sawdust? Microorganisms don’t want to do that either.
    • Carnivorous animals’ biological waste cannot be composted because they are full of risky diseases and compounds. The organisms that break down carnivores’ waste exist in nature, but may or may not exist inside your compost pile. Red wiggler worms, on the other hand, are fully capable of breaking carnivores’ waste.
    • Citrus materials are banned because they are too acidic

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