Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Home Composting: Preparing for an eco-frugal spring

This year we maintained a relatively small garden. We were quite busy throughout the later spring and summer, but we managed to muddle through with it. The results weren't as nice as I was expecting, but we pulled a fairly decent crop of cucumbers, strawberries, butter crunch lettuce, hot peppers, green onions and various types of tomatoes. Our mini water melons and radishes were a complete bust, however.

In the end I'd say it wasn't cost effective. The produce was completely organic and home grown, but we would have spent less if we had simply gone to the grocery store. So in the end I had trouble justifying the experience. I'm not a big fan of mucking about out doors getting my hands dirty.

The biggest deal breaker was the cost of soil. We went through a surprising amount considering our total harvest this year. I'd say this expense surpassed even seedlings. We used a variety of store bought soil, limestone, manure (bagged, not home produced) and local soil mixed thoroughly. This gave us pretty good results. But costs dictate that next year we'll have to be a bit more frugal when it comes to our gardening expenses, if only to justify the experience in my mind.

As such we've saved all of the soil from this year and started a small compost bin. If our math works out correctly we'll have more than enough to work with in the spring. It turned out to be surprisingly easy.

  • Select an area and method: There are two ways you can compost. You can either utilize the container model or an open pit design. We don't exactly need the amount an open pit compost pile would provide and we don't really have the space. So we utilized an old, disused plastic trash can. We perforated the bottom and sides to provide some (but not too much) drainage.

    We could have bought a special composting bin, but that would have instantly broken our budget for next year. They get upwards of $100 for a couple of dozen gallons. At that point I might as well buy new soil.

    Since even the best kept compost bin will likely start to smell significantly at some point we put it where we put smelly things, next to the trash cans.

  • Get the right mix: Composting is by definition decomposition and is a process by which living organisms break down organic matter. As such some chemistry is required.

    • Carbon: This should make up most of the material in your compost bin. Some pretty handy sources are leaves, fallen branches (broken up), disused mulch, cardboard and newspaper. All of these are very easy to come by in your average suburban yard, especially in the fall.

    • Nitrogen: You should have a fair bit of nitrogen producing material in your compost bin, but not too much. Some great sources are manure (bagged and sold at your local supply store, not home made), dead plants (such as your tomato plants after the frost) and yard trimmings (grass, shrub leaves).

  • Layer: Layer your compost material with moist soil but don't pack it down too tightly. This will prevent oxygen flow, which is crucial to the process.

  • Water: Air flow, heat and the composting process will consume water. If the pile becomes too dry the process will slow. On the flip side if the bin is not covered and becomes too wet (and lacks adequate drainage) you'll find yourself with a lovely smelling soup.

    So make sure the bin remains moist, but not too moist. Treat it like you would a house plant.

  • Turning: Turning a compost pile helps distribute water and oxygen, ingredients that are crucial to the process. So use a shovel to turn the mixture up every week or so. It doesn't have to be perfect, but you'll help the decomposition process.

  • Mixing: When things begin to fall apart and intermingle significantly with layered soil your compost is ready. For best results mix it with used potting soil from previous seasons. You'll be conserving energy, money and resources.

  • Stay away: There are a couple of things you should shy away from when composting. These materials can ruin all of your hard work or at the very least delay your final results.

    • Home "grown" manure: Unless you know what you're doing stay away from manure produced in your own home. This includes human and pet feces. In all likelihood this material will contain harmful pathogens. It'll also increase the smell factor by ten.

    • Some kitchen scraps: Egg shells and potato skins are great for compost piles. Chicken bones, wing tips, fat from your t-bone and fish heads are not so great. Not only will this increase the smell of your compost bin, but you may also find yourself a favorite hot spot for local wild life looking for an easy meal.

    • Some paper: While it may be tempting to throw that latest political mailer into a trash can full of rotting leaves and produce, steel yourself. Glossy paper and heavily dyed card stock will only poison your efforts. Newspaper is okay in small amounts, though.

    • Tainted plants: Did your crop of cucumbers die from a mysterious illness or blight? Don't put them into your compost bin or you'll be in for a terrible surprise come time to utilize your compost. Like wise shy away from plants that have been treated with pesticides. You want bugs and bacteria now, introducing pesticides into the mix will only prolong the process.
Is this the final word? Absolutely not. There are a wide array of composting methods available to you. I found that this works best in a suburban environment where space and time are more or less at a premium. You can certainly scale this up to six or seven garbage disused garbage cans or dig yourself a shallow pit in your back yard if you were so inclined. You can even build an elaborate cinder block bin if you had the materials and desire for A LOT of soil.

But so long as you turn it once in awhile and don't accidentally drag it down to the curb on garbage day you'll have a superior source of soil come next planting season.


Anonymous said...

Our garden was kind of disappointing this season, too.
We had the spring flooding (Way too much rain & wind).
Then no rain.
Just a weird weather season!
Anyhow - I love composting. It really is a gift to your garden.
And if you fish ... another bonus is the fat nightcrawlers you will find in your compost heap!

Anonymous said...

please post more gardening tips even though you have snow. we live in florida and have just started growing stuff. the warm winters give us more growing time then you. its hard to get started

-junebug and family


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