Vail Daily column: Compost is hot right now
July 12, 2010
When the entire room cleared during a recent dinner party to look at my compost bin in the garage, I thought to myself, “These times are a changing.”
Delighted, I skipped down the stairs and into the garage to open the lid of a plastic garbage can, revealing magical decomposing food scraps.
“It doesn’t smell,” one guest said.
“Just like earth,” another one replied.
And it looked like earth, too, a definite sign that the homemade bin was actually working – something I had been a bit skeptical about from the very beginning.
For the longest time, composting intimidated me. For being the most basic form of recycling, in my mind, it seemed very complicated – scientific even.
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What goes in it, exactly?
How do I know it’s working?
Do I have to buy an expensive bin?
What about the bears?
Is it going to smell?
How do I know it’s done?
And then what do I do with it?
My eco-conscience eventually hurdled the questions, and I gave composting a shot. What’s the worst that could happen, anyway? Nothing. As I quickly learned: Compost just happens.
When you throw food scraps into the landfill, however, compost just doesn’t happen. Wrapped in plastic garbage bags and drowning in a sea of other nonbiodegradable plastic crap, food scraps and other organic items, such as tea bags and eggshells, suffocate and go through a slow anaerobic decomposition, or composting without oxygen.
“And instead of producing wonderful, beautiful soil, it produces methane, a greenhouse gas that over a 20-year period is 72 percent more potent than carbon dioxide,” said Jennifer Santry, executive director of the High Country Conservation Center in Summit County. Santry will teach a class on backyard composting in the mountains July 22 (see info box for details.)
Healthy decomposition, when it creates what some call “gold for gardeners,” requires a balance of nitrogen (greens and food scraps), carbon (or the browns, such as dead leaves or old newspapers), oxygen and moisture. So for the backyard composter, it’s simply about creating that balance in a controlled environment so the microbes that are decomposing everything are healthy and fed well.
I started with a Rubbermaid garbage can with a lid and drilled holes all over, including in the lid and in the bottom, to allow the extra moisture to drip out, like you would when watering plants. And you then need a drip tray underneath the can. Santry said having a bin in your garage is OK, but it can get kind of messy as you add water and it continues to drain. She prefers bins that are open on the bottom and have contact with the earth. This way, there are microorganisms and worms coming in to help with the process. Santry said an ideal size for a compost bin is 3 feet by 3 feet to 5 feet by 5 feet.
Once you have your bin, it’s time to fill it. I keep a decorative, stainless steel mini garbage pail on my counter (it looks like Oscar the Grouch might pop out of it), and as I cook, deseed and peel my fruits and vegetables, I throw the scraps into the pail. This particular pail, designed specifically to hold compost scraps, has a carbon filter in the lid to help with any smell or fruit flies. I also toss eggshells, teabags and coffee grounds and filter into the pail, too, all materials that can go into the compost bin.
Once the smaller “Oscar” pail is full, I empty it into the larger compost bin in my garage. It’s important to note that when getting started, you need to add already formed compost or garden soil to your bin. Without this, you have no microorganisms to do the “eating” and nothing will compost.
So once you have your nitrogen (food scraps) mixed in with some healthy garden soil, you want to add more browns and water and give it a good mix with either a shovel or pitch fork. Katie, my friend from Indiana who creates and sells organic compost, said, “Buying a pitch fork changed my life.” Giving your compost a good mix adds more oxygen to fuel the heat of decomposition. When your bin is composting, it really does get hot.
And Santry reminds that moisture, especially in the dry climate of the Rockies, is really essential.
“Keep your compost bin watered like you do your garden,” she said. “Not too much but not too little, either.”
As a regular habit, every time I add greens, I sprinkle with some browns, add a little water and give it a good mix. You know when it’s done if it looks like earth and smells like earth.
Composting can be as scientific as you want, using thermometers and finishing the process in several weeks, or it can be lazy, taking an entire year to do it. And it doesn’t really matter either way. What does matter is you’re consciously helping to keep greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere by simply throwing food scraps into a different kind of recycling bin.
Freelance writer Cassie Pence is passionate about living a more sustainable lifestyle. She and her husband, Captain Vacuum, own Organic Housekeepers, a green cleaning company. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.