Friday, March 27, 2009

Diving Headfirst into Compost

I've always admired people who compost. It seems so green and earthy and a necessary element to have under your "green living" belt. When you're laying your "green lifestyle" cards on the table, it's hard to show your hand without the composting card sitting happily between the homemade cleaning products and reusable grocery bag cards. But I'll admit to always being extremely intimidated by composting. Having a rotting pile of food in the yard seems like such a bad idea, but so many people pull it off that there has to be something to it. I'll also admit to not understanding the layering and watering necessary for a successful compost. Oh and I have a huge phobia of maggots and I am just so sure that a pile of trash will somehow equal maggots. All of this caused us to remain a compost-free household, up until this past weekend.

I've been teetering on the compost idea since we started gardening. Compost is good for the garden and unless we keep driving to our friend's house for a trash can full of horse poo, we knew we'd have to come up with something ourselves. The thing that just tilted the decision in favor of composting is our soon-to-be chicken addition. We have to do something with all that chicken poo. I keep hearing over and over again to just add it to my compost pile for some nitrogen-rich garden yumminess.

I knew that having an open compost pile would not be an option. I have small children and a very curious dog, so having an open bin was out of the question. Then I eyed up the barrels that you can buy to make composting easy for suburbanites, but the high price put those out of our league. I searched online and found many sites explaining how to make a compost bin out of a garbage can with a tight-fitting lid. This was right up our alley.

We happen to have a brand-new trash can that Farmer B bought for horse poo retrieval and I figured this would make the perfect compost bin since we won't need horse poo anymore if this all works out. And if it doesn't work out, we can still use the holey garbage can for yard waste.

I grabbed Farmer B's power drill and put the wrong drill bit on it (FYI - a drywall bit works even though the man in your life might tell you it's the wrong drill bit for the job, thank you very much) and just drilled finger-sized holes all over the can - about every 6 inches or so. I read that it's important to put holes in the bottom of the can too. You should elevate your can on some attractive cinder blocks like we did, or you could always be crafty and build a little platform for it out of wood. Some people say you can even put a tray under your bin to catch the compost drippings for your garden. We're not doing that because I know it would become the sole source of water for the dog.

I keep reading about the brown/green ratio necessary for successful composting. Apparently you put a layer of brown, like leaves, chipped branches, brown paper and mulch and then a layer of green, like your kitchen scraps or grass clippings, and then wet the whole thing down and repeat. You avoid anything meaty if you want to keep it from smelling vile. Every week or so you should tip the can over and roll it around your yard to mix up the compost, then roll it back to its perch and repeat the process until at some point you have compost. This is why you need a tight-fitting lid and a bungee cord to ensure it doesn't bust open.

To get started, I threw a bunch of garden soil in the bottom of the can because I read somewhere that soil is a good start if you don't have sawdust. Then I tossed in some mulched-up leaves. I have yet to figure out if a "layer" is 1/2 inch of "stuff" or 5 inches of "stuff." After those layers, I've been tossing in my leftover raw fruit and vegetable peelings from the kitchen. Finally - because the internet told me to - I ripped up some newspaper and put that on top and sprinkled the hose on it too.

I went out there today to add some more kitchen waste to the pile and when I opened the lid a veritable army of fruit flies came swarming out at my face to attack me. That was so delightful. I read online that fruit flies are to be expected if you have rotting fruit in the bin. I tossed in my kitchen waste and then added some more leaves and put the hose on it all again. Once again - do I hold the hose on it for 5 seconds or 5 minutes? I have no idea. I've read that your compost pile should feel like a damp sponge. Who are these people who are digging their hands in this crap and comparing it to sponges? Blech!

It's funny. I have no natural feel for gardening or composting. But I feel quite confident with raising animals and kids. Let's hope when these little chicks appear next week that I'll do something right. I've never had chickens before, but yet I feel confident that I can pull it off. I don't feel so confident that I can make compost out of the crap in that trash can.


Kathryn said...

Oh, Kate, you make my mornng! Good luck with your compost. I've been trying to get the Ol' Salt to help me give it a try. I hate throwing out all those good veg and fruit leftovers. However, once your chicks get there, they love that stuff also. It's true. Have a great day and take care. K (aka: Mad Beach Maven)

Anonymous said...

Good luck with your composting. You almost can't go wrong with it because everything eventually rots.

Lo said...

Kate- to help speed up the composting process we always shred up everything before we put it in. Like cut up your banana peels and shred your paper. We keep a plastic tub in our garage and we add kitchen waste to it until it is full the we add it to the composer and then add in shredded yard waste. Ill email you the rest of the info. Congrats on Composting!!!

Anonymous said...

Don't sweat it, Kate. Compost happens whether you help it along or not. The careful balance of browns and greens, the addition of water and the tumbling of the can will result in faster decomposition, but even if you just put the stuff in the can and sprinkled it with a bit of water and did nothing else, you would still get compost. It would just take longer. Tumbling it adds oxygen to the mix which is what speeds up the process.

whiterice said...

Yeah...compost!! You know, I've read, and read, and read so much about the science of composting. To be honest, I've been quite successful just throwing my stuff in and mixing. I don't water, I layer when I think of it, and though this recipe might not produce compost as quickly and efficiently as those compost works...and well! My neighbor is a compost scientist....I am sometimes envious of his compost...but he also spends a couple hours each week mixing, watering, layering, etc....hours that I just don't have.

Oh, and so far the chickens are making composting easier. They eat most of the veggie and fruit scraps, thus "pre-composting" my compostables.

Don't worry too will all work out. You will soon embrace it....and pretty soon it won't even gross you out when you see your kids digging in the compost bins with their bare hands to find bugs to feed the chickens.

CJ said...

Yeah for the soon to arrive chicks!

I can't for the life of me get compost to work. The house came with the black 'earth box'. I attached hardware cloth to the bottom and started tossing in kitchen waste. Same thing -- fruit flies!

Any time I can add good browns like shredded leaves, it starts to cook but maybe we just eat too many veggies? Pretty soon it's all veggies and flies.

I can't seem to get that bottom layer to be DONE. Your rolling around plan means you are continually introducing non-composted fresh stuff to your pile. When people plan to do that, like with an official and pricy compost spinner, they use one bin to collect and start the process and then when they have enough it goes into the spinner and comes out complete compost in just a few weeks.

Good luck!

Carole said...

Thanks for always making me smile. What will you come up with next?.
Good luck on the baby chicks..let us know what you name them...ill like Clarabelle for the chick that's the sassyist!

Corner Gardener Sue said...

HI Kate,
I am up past my bedtime, and yours is my last blog for the evening. I get to go to sleep laughing about your post.

I have 3 piles right next to each other. I just throw things on 1 pile at a time, then turn when it starts to get full, then start another one. Later, I'll take the top off the older pile,and mix it with the last one, until I get down to finished compost. I bet that isn't making much sense.

Right now, all 3 are full of leaves, and I just throw weeds, coffee grounds, etc right on top. I don't put weeds that have gone to seed on them, though.

I hope you get some good compost. If you are tumbling it, the layering isn't critical. Just try to get an assortment of things in there. Keep us updated!

Melissa said...

Hi! I'm really enjoying your blog! A friend happened upon your post about chicken diapers - too funny! We're enjoying our first experience with chickens - have 27 that have just started laying. I found this care sheet very helpful.

engineeredgarden said...

Good for you, Kate! That chicken litter will really get that mixture cooking.


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