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Create Your Own Compost
Create Your Own Compost
Like San Francisco, Seattle and a few other U.S. cities, my home of Portland, Ore., has implemented curbside compost pickup. I simply toss my food and yard debris in a big green bin, and each week it’s hauled away and composted—not piled in a landfill. But if you who don’t have this service, or if you want to create compost to use on your own plants, it’s easy to do whether you have acres of land or a studio apartment.
Compost is produced naturally in forests and fields, when organic matter, including plants and food, decompose with the help of oxygen, water, bugs and bacteria. It’s basically the same process when you compost at home. What results is not soil, but a dark brown, crumbly substance that is an ideal addition to garden or houseplant soil—helping it retain moisture and nutrients.
Getting started doesn’t require fancy equipment. In fact, a big pile of leaves in your backyard will eventually become compost even if you never touch it—that’s called cold composting. But apartment dwellers can compost too. “There are so many simple things you can do to reduce the amount of organic waste you contribute to landfills,” says Amber Gribben, of Urban Worm Girl. “Sprinkle used coffee grounds and egg shells around your garden, start a worm bin or simply let your grass clippings sit on the lawn and mulch back in.”
Gribben and her business partner Stephanie Davies, author of Composting Inside and Out: 14 Methods to Fit Your Lifestyle, run composting classes and workshops in and around Chicago. And while their passion for vermicomposting (composting with worms) is what gave rise to their business, they help folks find the best method for their needs, resources and commitment level.
Cooking and fermenting
If you have an outdoor space and a willingness to exert a small amount of effort, hot composting is a good option. Place a compost bin in a level, shady spot with good drainage. The key to good compost is keeping a ratio of two parts carbon-rich brown material to one part nitrogen-rich green material. Start by adding a few inches of brown, such as wood chips, paper, straw, branches or leaves, add a thin layer of green like grass clippings or kitchen scraps, then finish with another layer of brown. “I remind people that they can recycle paper towels, toilet paper rolls, and other paper along with food scraps,” says Gribben. Aside from eggshells, you generally don’t want to include animal products in your compost scraps, as they can attract pests. Sprinkle the compost with water so it is damp, not wet, and let it sit.
As far as maintenance goes, you need to rotate your compost or “turn your bin.” You can do this as often as every couple of days or as infrequently as once a month, but the more you do it the faster it will “cook.” In about six months you will have rich, brown compost ready to use. You’ll know its good to go when it looks and smells like very dark soil rather than rotting food.
For those who have a bit of yard but want a faster source of compost, consider the Bokashi Method, a traditional Japanese waste management technique that uses fermentation. A four-gallon bucket under the sink or on the balcony can be used to collect all food scraps—including dairy and meat. “It’s great because you can scrap your entire dinner plate right into the bucket,” says Gribben. Add Bokashi enzyme—easily found online—which is mainly wheat bran and black strap molasses. Once full, secure an airtight lid and let sit for two weeks. The contents can then be buried at the edges of your garden, about 6-8 inches deep, where they will continue to process and add to the quality of the soil.
If you want to give your houseplants or garden a dose of the absolute richest compost you can make, invest in some worms. Not only does vermicomposting create a super product, it is one of the lowest profile and fastest ways to recycle organic waste. “Some people fear it will be smelly and strange to have living creatures under their sink or in their garage,” says Gribben. But worms are easy to take care of and produce rich, moist, odorless compost.
Start by lining a worm bin with strips of newspaper and sprinkle with water. Add a bunch of red wigglers (you can find them at garden centers or online), along with the earth they come in. Cover your bin and store in a cool, dry, dark place for a day or two.
When it’s time for feeding, give your worms fruit and veggie scraps that are cut into one-inch pieces (no meat, dairy or egg shells). Bury your scraps under the soil in a corner of the bin—rotating corners each time you add more scraps. A good rule of thumb is to give the worms at most one-half their body weight in scraps a day, and ideally to wait until they have processed the food in the bin before adding more.
After a few months you’ll see a lot of brown, crumbly compost. To harvest it, push all the contents of the bin to one side. Place newspaper down on the opposite side and bury food scraps under it. After about a week, the worms will have migrated to that side, leaving the compost ready to scoop.
Though Gribben says burying all scraps completely and adding fresh paper from time to time are imperative to keeping your worm bin productive and odor-free, the worms basically take care of themselves. “The worms adjust to their environment. Though they reproduce, you will never have too many. They are amazing creatures who do a great job of transforming our waste.”
Linda is a nutritional anthropologist and freelance writer in Portland, Ore. Her work has been featured in Body & Soul, Fitness, Glamour, Natural Health, Yoga Journal and many other national magazines. She is also the author of the User's Guide to Natural Remedies for Depression (Basic Health Publications, 2003).
August 9th, 2012