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Gardening Columns

Compost Musings

First published on on August 27, 2009, by Suzanne DeJohn

Any how-to composting article worth its salt will tell you to build a pile that's at least one cubic yard, to mix nitrogen-rich and carbon-rich materials in just the right ratios, and to turn the pile to mix the materials so they decompose evenly. I'll confess that I'm batting just one for three: my pile is big, but that's because I've pulled so many big weeds out of my gardens. Usually, I just leave the weeds in the garden to decompose, but I've been pulling some lambs-quarters that are as large as small shrubs,so I just chuck them in "the pile," in part because I'm embarrassed that I let the weeds get so out of hand.

I'm a lazy composter, but I'm trying to change my ways. So I've been looking at some of the helpful devices you can buy to make composting easier and more efficient. 

Compost Bins
You can buy fancy tumblers, chambered barrels, and simple wire bins. To be efficient, however, you really need three bins: one for adding fresh material to, one that's "cooking," and one with finished compost ready to spread. If you have the room, and the inclination, you can build a set of open-front bins using old wooden shipping pallets. 

I'm also looking into Green Cone food scrap digesters, which incorporate an underground digestion chamber. You can put all sorts of food waste in the top -- things that you normally wouldn't put in a compost bin, including meat and dairy, in part because they'll attract critters. The green cones are reputed to be secure enough to keep pets and wild animals out, although I wonder if the bear that tore down a friend's bird house would be included in that list.

Compost Buckets
My biggest compost headache is that the vegetable scraps sit too long in the kitchen, attracting fruit flies, looking unsightly, and getting smelly in hot weather. My free-form compost pile is at the far corner of the yard and, although it's not far, it's far enough that I don't always get around to bringing out the scraps as often as I should. For a while I used a lidded plastic pail, but it was unpleasant to have to clean the slimy stuff out of the bottom. My mom kept a 6-inch plastic flower pot in the corner of the sink and put scraps in there. She used the saucer to cover it. Any water in the scraps seeped out of the drainage holes, and she put the saucer underneath as she carried it out to the bin so it wouldn't drip. Now that I have a bigger kitchen sink than I used to, I might give this a go. 

There are now biodegradable compost bags that you can use to line your compost pail. That way, you can deposit the contents, bag and all, into your bin or pile and, in theory, the bag will compost along with its contents. The pail stays clean and un-smelly. I hate the thought of buying something that I'm going to turn around and throw in the compost pile, but I may end up giving these a try. 

Other Tools
The decomposition of organic matter is a natural process that will take place eventually in an untended pile. If you're looking for fast, odorless compost-making, then you'll need to approach it more scientifically. Specifically, you need to nurture the aerobic organisms that are the most efficient at the job. Aerobes need oxygen (in contrast to anaerobes, which break down organic matter in a low-oxygen environment but emit unpleasant smells in the process). Aerobes also need moisture -- but not too much because too much moisture means too little oxygen. Tools for improving composting efficiency include:

-- Aerators, that you stick in the pile and turn to incorporate air
-- Thermometers, so you can monitor the temperature
-- Inoculant, which contains a starter supply of microbes
-- Moisture meters, which measure the moisture content of the pile

And maybe a sturdy pitchfork if you have a pile, rather than a bin. You could easily spend $400 or more for composting supplies, which seems a little crazy to me, considering that stuff in a pile will decompose on its own. But the pile in my back yard has been sitting for 10 months and it's nowhere near finished decomposing. And the kitchen scraps in the kitchen get slimy and smelly... So maybe there's something to all this fancy paraphernalia!


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