We haven’t had a whole lot going on this week, but we did check one major thing off of our to-do list: winter compost utilization! Since we finished overhauling the empty garden areas last week, it was time to finally start moving some compost.
We built our current compost bin with two separate sides to allow for easier compost utilization. One side of the bin houses older compost that is aging and one side houses newer compost that we continuously add to. When the aging compost has broken down enough that it is suitable to add to our garden and raised beds, we empty that respective side of the bin and then the cycle starts over. Once one side of the bin gets emptied, the empty side then becomes the side that is continuously added to, and the side with compost currently in it becomes the aging side. This method works really well for us and provides the proper space for our older compost to age while still allowing us to have a space to add new compost.
Up until this point, one side of our compost bin has been aging since the fall and has been ready to be moved for at least a few weeks now. Unfortunately the weather just hasn’t been cooperating and we had what seemed like constant rain over the past few weeks. Luckily things have started to dry out and we finally got a dry but overcast day this week to move some compost. Since we don’t have a tractor, moving compost requires a lot of manual labor. We move the compost shovelful by shovelful into a dump cart that we pull behind the four wheeler. Once the dump cart is full of compost, we drive the four wheeler through the middle aisle of the garden and re-shovel the compost out of the dump cart and into the empty areas. We repeat this process until the aged side of the compost bin is completely empty. This time around it took us about five loads back and forth, but we finally emptied out the aging side of the compost bin and moved everything into the garden. It always feels so good when one side of the bin is empty! As you can imagine, this task takes a good chunk of time, but luckily my dad came over to help which made everything go twice as fast. Thanks, dad! There’s nothing like sharing some good conversations and bonding over broken down manure and food waste.
Now that one side of the compost bin is empty, we have retired the remaining compost and we are starting over with new compost in the empty side. The pile of compost that is currently in the bin will no longer have anything added to it. Every few weeks we will turn the compost to provide aeration, and in a couple of months the compost in that side of the bin will be ready to be applied to our garden to amend the soil before we transplant summer crops.
All About Compost
In simple terms, compost is decomposed organic matter. Composting is the natural process of recycling organic matter into useable soil. The term “organic matter” is very wide-ranging and includes things such as plants, leaves, food scraps, and manure. When a variety of organic matter is combined together in a compost pile, it will break down and produce nutrient-rich fertilizer that enriches soil and plants. Composting facilitates the process of decomposition by providing an ideal environment for bacteria, fungi, worms, and insects to break organic matter down naturally.
Composting requires three basic ingredients: greens, browns, and water. Greens include materials such as food waste, grass clippings, and coffee grounds. These materials provide nitrogen to the pile. Browns include material such as wood shavings, dead leaves, paper, and twigs. These materials provide carbon to the pile. Water provides essential moisture which aids in the decomposition process. Ideally, the compost pile should have an equal amount of brown and green materials and should always be moist.
Here is a comprehensive list of compostable materials from the EPA: fruits and vegetables, eggshells, coffee grounds and filters, non-dairy and non-meat food waste such as bread and noodles, tea bags, nut shells, shredded newspaper, cardboard, paper, yard trimmings, grass clippings, house plants, hay and straw, leaves, sawdust, wood chips, wood shavings, cotton and wool rags, hair and fur, and fireplace ashes.
Things that should not be composted: meat, fish, butter, yogurt, cheese, milk, animal fats, bones, and pet feces.
How to compost
The first step in composting is to obtain a small container for stashing food scraps in your kitchen. We use a small plastic bin that latches shut and we keep it either on our kitchen counter or in one of our lower kitchen cabinets. The key is to find a container that fits in a convenient close-by kitchen space and that is light enough to carry outside to your compost bin. The second step is to create or purchase a compost bin. There are multiple different options ranging from building a simple bin to purchasing a fancy pre-made bin – we chose to build a simple open bin out of wood. Be sure to locate your bin in a dry shady spot in your yard. Putting the bin in an area out of direct sunlight will help to keep the compost from drying out and will decrease the amount of water you have to add to the pile to keep it moist.
To begin composting, start collecting your food and kitchen scraps throughout the week. At the end of the week (or anytime your compost container is full!), add the contents of your compost container to your compost pile. As you collect your compost from your kitchen and from your yard, aim for a mix of nitrogen-rich green material and carbon-rich brown material. Every few weeks, turn the compost pile with a shovel to provide aeration. Mixing the green and brown materials together regularly will help to increase the heat in the compost pile and will speed up the composting process. Water may need to be added to keep the pile moist, but usually the rain and dew will take care of this part for you. Otherwise, nature does the majority of the work. It will take up to a few months for your compost pile to start turning into soil, but you will likely notice changes within the first few weeks.
Benefits of Composting
Composting has numerous benefits for our gardens and our environment alike. Compost enriches soil, suppresses soil-borne diseases and pests, helps soil to better retain moisture, and encourages the production of beneficial bacteria and fungi that break down organic matter. Compost adds nutrients like nitrogen, copper, phosphorus, magnesium, calcium and zinc into the soil which reduces the need for synthetic fertilizers that contain harmful chemicals. Compost naturally promotes higher yielding and more disease resistant agricultural crops, and because of its ability to boost water retention in the soil, it can facilitate growing hardier plants with less water. This can potentially lead to a more cost effective way to grow food and flowers. Compost can also provide cost savings by decreasing the amount of manufactured compost or garden soil that the home gardener purchases from a store.
Another increasingly import benefit of composting is that it reduces methane and carbon dioxide emissions from landfills and can help lower your carbon footprint. According to the EPA, food scraps and yard waste make up 30% of what’s thrown away in landfills. Not only is throwing organic material into the garbage harmful to the environment, but removing organic material from our garbage will reduce the amount of trash that is being sent to the landfill. According to the NRDC, when organic matter such as food, yard, and garden waste naturally decomposes, it undergoes aerobic decomposition – meaning it is broken down by microorganisms that require oxygen to survive. When organic material goes into a landfill, it is in a plastic bag that gets buried under massive amounts of trash. This effectively cuts off the oxygen supply to the aerobic decomposers and the organic material ends up being decomposed via anaerobic metabolism by microbes that don’t require oxygen to survive. The byproduct of anaerobic metabolism is a biogas comprised of 50% methane and 50% carbon dioxide, which are both harmful greenhouse gases that are known to trap heat in the atmosphere. By composting organic matter and keeping it out of landfills, we can help to decrease the amount of trash in the landfills and also decrease the emission of greenhouse gases. How cool is that?!
If you don’t have the desire or space to create a compost bin of your own, many cities offer compost collection at farmers markets or other designated sites. To participate, simply store your kitchen scraps in a container or in your freezer and bring them to the market or designated site on drop off day. It can be that simple! And if you’re interested in starting to compost, please reach out to us! We are very passionate about composting and compost utilization around here, and we would love to chat about all things compost with you.