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A handfull of black gold

Composting is of the most efficient things you can do with garden, lawn and plant based kitchen waste. It takes huge masses of organic material and turns it into what gardeners refer to as "black gold". Microorganisms turn leaves, weeds, grass clippings, and other plant waste into a black, crumbly, nutrient rich material that can help quickly convert poor, depleted soil into rich highly productive soil.

Composting also allows you to be a "greener" household, by removing all plant material from your waste stream. I've seen bag after bag of grass clippings, fall leaves and tree trimmings at the ends of driveways destined to be dumped in a landfill, when it could as easily have been processed by the homeowners to improve their own soil. At the same time, many communities are spending loads of taxpayer's money to haul household waste to distant sites because the local landfills have long since been filled to capacity and closed down. It just doesn't make sense... OK - I'm getting off my soap box now.

There are basically three methods of making compost. All three start with the same raw material and end up with the same finished product. The only differences are how much you can make, how quickly you can make it, and how much effort and expense has to be put into the process.

Basic Composting Biology

In truth, composting is going on all the time, anywhere there is soil, and plants are growing. It's how top soil is created. Piling up the organic material just accelerates a naturally occurring process.

Compost is formed when organic matter is broken down and decomposed by microorganisms, and little crawly things like earthworms and insects. Microorganisms like fungi, bacteria, and yeasts consume sugars, starches and other components of plant matter, and leave behind their waste products and anything that they can't digest. What's left just happens to be minerals and nutrients that plants need to thrive. Decomposition releases these nutrients that are bound up in plant matter and frees them up in a form that growing plants can use. Earthworms, roly-polys and insects like ants, termites and beetles also consume plant material, and leave behind their waste products, which just add to the mix.

Decomposition in the center of the mass creates heat, so decomposition takes place all winter, even in colder climates like the American Mid-West. The more mass you have, the more cold resistant the process will be.

The "Big Pile" Method

A compost pile in late winter

The "big pile" is my personal choice due to the low level of effort that's needed. The main drawback is that it's ugly to look at. That being said, mine is out of sight behind my barn, so no one has to look at it except me.

If you have the room, I recommend making a pile. You have unlimited capacity, where the other methods involve filling a bin or a barrel, once it's full, you're done.

I just keep piling stuff on all year, and in the early spring, when I need some compost, I use a pitch fork to move all of the un-decomposed material off of the top into an another pile right next to the old one.

That way the pile gets moved back & forth every year. Once I reach the good stuff, I can use it by the wheel barrow load on rhubarb, asparagus, grape vines, herbs, fruit trees and in my vegetable garden.

Prioritize where you will put your compost, because there never seems to be enough to go as far as you would like it to - no matter how big your pile is.

The Bin System

Compost bins are the next step up in sophistication from the big pile. If you live in town or the "burbs", a set of bins may be a better and more visually appealing choice for you (and your neighbors...). Most systems involve a set of 1 to 3 bins built side by side out of lumber, wooden pallets , cinder blocks or lumber and welded wire fencing.

There are also some commercially available bins that work quite well but can be expensive. Bins are usually 4 to 6 feet square and about 4 feet high. They can be opened in the front to allow access for turning and harvesting the finished product.  Capacities are limited to how many bins you have, and how big they are. Due to less mass, decomposition may be a bit slower, but in the end, it still makes compost.

Turning or mixing the material in the bins can accelerate the process, but is more labor intensive, taking away time that you could spend on other things. The question of how often to turn the compost is mainly a matter of opinion, and can vary anywhere from every day, to once a month, to whenever I feel like it, to never. I fall into that last category. Some people will also add red worms (a type of earth worm) to their bins to accelerate decomposition. Instead of physically turning the material, they let the worms do all the work naturally.

The Barrel or Tumbler

The most "advanced" technique is the "tumbler". Basically, this is a big barrel on it's side, sitting on a stand. The barrel sits on rollers which allows it to be turned easily. It is filled with organic matter and an "innoculant" is added. The barrel has to be turned twice a day, and after two to three weeks the micro-organisms in the innoculant decompose the plant waste. The up-side to this is that you get compost very quickly. The downside is that you get very small batches, and you have to keep buying innoculant.

If you want to make compost quickly, and have the time and inclination, this might be a good match for you. However, if you have a large amount of organic matter to deal with, you might want to consider one of the other two methods listed above. My father-in-law has a tumbler, and he loves it. On the other hand, it wouldn't be practical for me, due to the volumes of organic material my place generates.

Vermiculture (Earthworm) Composting

If you have limited space, and just want to recycle kitchen waste, you can set up an earthworm composter. A specific variety of earthworms usually called red wigglers (yes - the same kind sold commercially for fishing bait) are very good at consuming kitchen waste. Earthworm "poop" is referred to as castings, and make an excellent fertilizer.

Vermiculture boxes are commercially available, but you can build one yourself out of plywood, or even use a plastic storage bin. The minimum size should be 24"x24"x8". Increase the base size or depth to accommodate more organic waste. The key thing is that you have a container with a lid. You will have to drill some air holes on all four sides, and a drain hole in the bottom to allow liquids to drain off. Make sure you can capture the liquid, because it is a concentrated fertilizer as well, and can be used on your plants.

Start by filling the box about half way with bedding material like dry leaves, shredded cardboard, news paper, or something similar. bedding material will decompose over time as well, so you will have to add more over time. Hay, straw and grass clippings can get too hot when it decomposes. Add a couple hands full of sand because earthworms have gizzards, just like birds, and need rock material to grind their food. Add some water as well. You want the bedding material damp, but not soaked. Add the worms, and after 2-3 days start adding kitchen waste. Keep the box covered to prevent it drying out too much.

Every 3-4 months you can harvest the worm castings. Screen the material through a stainless steel 3/16" kitchen sieve. The worm castings will fall though, and worms and un-decomposed food and bedding will not. Return the worms and un-decomposed material to the box and start over. You will find that there is no unpleasant smell from the castings, or the bedding material and worms. The castings are a super fertilizer for starting seedlings in before transplanting to the garden, as well as for adding directly to the soil of any plants.

Earthworms reproduce pretty quickly, so you will have surplus that you can sell for bait (or go fishing yourself). I have a friend who feeds them to his chickens - They love it... Red Wigglers don't live very well in most native soils, so releasing them in your garden is probably neither meaningful nor practical.

What's OK to Compost and what's Not...

Here's a list of items that should be OK to add to your pile, bin or drum: most animal manure (see exceptions below), clean & shredded cardboard, newspaper and paper, coffee grounds and filters, dryer- and vacuum-cleaner lint, eggshells, fireplace ashes, fruits and vegetables, grass clippings, hay and straw, houseplants, leaves, weeds, garden waste, nut shells, sawdust, tea bags, wood chips, and yard trimmings.

... and some things that you should not add include: coal or charcoal ash, eggs and dairy products, fats, grease, oil, meat or fish bones and scraps, diseased plant material, human, feline and canine feces or used cat litter.

Composting is a super way to use organic kitchen, garden and yard waste, keep it out of landfills and make it into something valuable and useful. It improves your soil and grows stronger healthier and more productive plants. It can be as easy as piling up organic waste and waiting for it to decompose, or as advanced as a tumbler system or vermiculture. Any way you choose, the end result is well worth the effort.

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