In the Garden: Growing Great Compost
Do you want a great garden? Do you throw away food every month? Are you aware that you are throwing money away?
Most people know that composting is an option, but many keep from starting out of fear of having a stinky pile that angers the neighbors or a complex and time-consuming system that is not worth the effort. My goal here is to clear up some misconceptions and to describe a simple, intuitive system that will turn your trash into treasure.
The first step is collecting your food waste. The simplest system is to place a bin next to your trashcan; large enough to hold a day’s worth of food waste and restricted enough to keep any pets out. An average family of four would need a bin the size of a shoebox.
Dump any uneaten food in that bin instead of in the trash. Banana peels, apple cores and bowls of oatmeal are welcome additions, but things like tea bags, plastic and glossy paper are strictly prohibited. Meat, dairy and oil should be added sparingly because if they build up enough they can lead to bad smells (you will know if you have added too much). At the end of each day or as often as is convenient, you will take that bin of food waste to your compost pile.
This can be a simple pile on the ground, you can build a small box or you can buy a multitude of contraptions from the garden center like tumblers, worm bins or specially designed spinners. The tumblers and spinners have the added benefits of making it easy to introduce oxygen and being very good at keeping wildlife out. Whatever you use, the concept is the same: you add the food waste, you add some brown materials like leaves, straw or shredded paper, and you add oxygen.
Once a day, to keep smells down, the pile should be turned with a shovel and brown materials should be added in roughly the same amount as the food waste. Food will start breaking down within a week and in a few months you will easily have enough soil to cover a 10 by 10 foot area.
A compost thermometer from any nursery is the best way to track temperature but you can also use most food thermometers. If the compost is too cold, it means the microorganisms don’t have what they need, like enough food, brown materials or oxygen. It’s important to remember that even if things get cold or smelly, they can always be worked back to proper order quickly and easily, so do not despair.
If things are going right, then there should be no smells and you should see the food waste disappear in a number of days (the most common mistake being that not enough oxygen is added to the compost pile).
A very good number to remember is 131 degrees. At that temperature, any potential pathogens, weed seeds, insect larvae or anything negative will be unable to survive in the compost, so if you are worried about spreading any seeds to your garden or diseases to your plants, just check your thermometer.
The benefits of composting covers everything from cutting down on your trash bill, to giving you free, highly fertile garden soil, to helping the environment by keeping things from going to landfills. It also saves you time and money every year when you plant your vegetable garden.
Colin Evoy spent most of the summer working at Camp Seymour as an AmeriCorps Agricultural Coordinator. He leaves in August for a yearlong AmeriCorps service in Denver.
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