Last Saturday I went to a compost demonstration. When I told Mark that I wanted to go to a compost demonstration, he joked that I didn’t have any signage, as if “demonstration” meant “rally,” like I was going to a trash protest march. Alas, the compost demonstration was not a rally but rather a meeting at a local park where the education director from our county’s solid waste management office offered tips on successful composting. Still though, how fun it would be to have a rally with recyclable (compostable, even!) signs like:
“Oppose the trash establishment!”
“Composters unite! Overthrow trashers!”
“No veggies left behind!”
OK. You get the idea.
Anyhow, off I went to the park on a chilly Saturday morning to get some tips. I wrote this beginner’s composting post a few weeks ago that gives basic information on starting a compost bin. But, I am not an expert composter, so I knew I could learn more.
As I mentioned, our composting teacher works for the county’s solid waste department as their education director, and she began her lecture with such little nuggets as, “I talk trash for a living,” and “My business is trash. Once you get in, it’s hard to get out.” She also had a 12 gallon indoor worm compost bin with a sign taped to the lid that said, “Worms eat my garbage.” I won’t cover worm composting in this post, but if you’d like to know more, here’s a great tutorial on how to start your own indoor worm bin.
The following are some highlights of what I learned at the demonstration (some of this information is also in my previous post on composting, but it’s worth repeating):
There are four main ingredients to successful composting:
- Nitrogen (the “greens”): these are fresh vegetable waste like coffee grounds, and fruits and vegetables. Grass clippings also provide nitrogen, but leave them on the ground as you mow instead of gathering them up for your compost bin since they offer even more benefit to your lawn as they break down.
- Carbon (the “browns”): these are essentially things that come from trees, so leaves as well as shredded newspaper, office paper, and paper towels. Avoid glossy paper. Compost pine needles in moderation. They have a waxy coating and take a long time to break down in the bin.
- Water: ideal saturation is no more than 70%. Keep the compostable materials moist but not dripping wet. If you squeeze your compost in your hand and water comes out, it’s too wet. If the bin gets too wet, you will prohibit air from circulating properly and will, at worst, kill your worms and other beneficial organisms. At best, you’ll cause a mass exodus of the worms and other creatures. Either way, once the critters leave, it will take much longer for your materials to decompose and the whole bin will start to smell bad. Proper drainage in your bin is also critical so that moisture doesn’t build up. Likewise, during hot weather, you should monitor your bin to make sure it doesn’t get too dry. If it gets dry, add some water and mix the materials thoroughly.
- Air: the beneficial little organisms that help to break down your compostable materials need air to survive. If they die, then the process of decomposition slows way down and, again, the bin starts to smell bad. To keep air circulating, turn the bin frequently. My compost bins are made from 32 gallon trash cans that I drilled holes in to allow air to circulate. We roll the bin around at least once a week. However, in the compost demonstration, I learned that I should probably also be turning the materials with a shovel or pitch fork to make sure the materials really get combined properly and moisture levels are constant throughout the bin. Also, one great thing about adding leaves to your pile is that they help create air pockets in the bin, so it’s crucial to mix them in properly.
- A good compost recipe is 1 part “greens” to 1 part “browns.” I mentioned in my previous post that whenever I bring greens from the house to the compost bin, I always add a roughly equal amount of leaves (I have a big pile of leaves next to my bin).
- Chop food into small chunks before adding it to the bin. Our composting teacher mentioned that she once dumped a big ball of leftover cooked rice into her small indoor worm composting bin. Her worms revolted and left the bin (and took up residence on her floor!). She also mentioned that she once tried to compost Fritos in the worm bin. This, too, was a mistake because fats are not compostable (and the high salt content was also a problem for the worms). That being said, large outdoor compost bins are much more forgiving than small indoor ones, so the occasional vegetable that was cooked in oil should be fine. I am usually too lazy to cut up my compostable foods, but I’m going to start trying especially now that spring is here and I really want the materials in my bin to decompose quickly so I can use the compost in my garden.
- If your bin starts to smell, add carbon materials (like leaves). Carbon helps neutralize odors which is why so many air filters advertise themselves as carbon air filters. Healthy compost has a very mild, almost sweet smell.
- If you’re really serious about speeding up the decomposition process, add manure. Our teacher describes horse, cow, and chicken manure as “rocket fuel” for compost bins. She far prefers horse manure over cow or chicken manure because it doesn’t smell as much. Also, apparently, it’s much easier to collect. She said that farmers are usually more than happy to have you come collect their animal manure and take it away (provided you ask first and bring your own bucket). She only recommends using manure from vegetarian animals (so don’t start adding your dog’s feces to your compost bin).
- Outdoor bins need sufficient volume to generate enough heat to break down materials. If you want to quickly increase your bin’s volume, you can ask for coffee grounds from local coffee shops. Many are happy to have you take away their grounds. Even the filters are compostable. Also, grocery stores and restaurants with salad bars often have produce that has passed its prime and will just be thrown out. If you bring a bucket, you might just convince someone to let you take home the “leftovers.”
- “If you build it, they will come.” You don’t need to add your own worms to your outdoor compost bin (this is obviously not true for indoor worm bins). If you build your compost bin properly (following the four main ingredients outlined above), worms and other beneficial organisms will find it.
I also learned that in our county, 20% of what ends up in the landfill is compostable, and another 20% is recyclable. Consequently, if we all just made a little more effort to compost and recycle, we could reduce the amount we put in our landfill by up to 40%. What an incredible prospect.
So this Saturday, our compost rally will be held at the local landfill. I’ll be the one holding the “Compost this!” sign. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist. It is April Fool’s Day, after all).