Composting is an activity that is critical to the organic garden.
It is also important to reducing waste in landfill and minimising your carbon footprint. Composting green and kitchen waste creates a closed loop system for your household waste.
When kitchen scraps and green wastes are thrown in a bin and sent to landfill, they don’t break down into compost. Landfill is an anaerobic environment; instead of breaking down, the scraps turn into a sludge and release methane, a greenhouse gas. Most of landfill waste is made up of food waste. Anything homeowners can do to reduce this will cut greenhouse emissions and our collective household carbon footprint.
We have a compost bin in our backyard, and an internal compost bucket in the kitchen to hold kitchen scraps. My kids are regularly reminded to throw their fruit peelings and avocado skins in the compost bucket, rather than in the bin. I especially loathe to open the garbage can and discover a discarded banana peel. My kids will hear an enraged cry: “Who chucked a banana peel out? Compost! COMPOST!!”
Banana peels are powerhouses of nutrition for garden plants, and I will stick my hand in the bin to retrieve a banana peel if I see one.
Compost not only reduces waste, but creates healthy soil. Australian soils are heavily depleted. They were not meant to sustain the cropping we have subjected them to for the past 250 years, and require replenishing. Recent research has found that much like human guts, the soil is dependent on a vast microbiome of beneficial bacteria and fungi that helps to feed plants and the species that feed on those plants. Compost contains many of those bacteria and fungi, replenishing what we remove when we grow plants and wash nutrients away.
Making compost is pretty easy, but also easy to get wrong. These are the main ways to stuff it up:
- Make it too wet
- Make it too dry
- Unbalance the ingredients
- Don’t turn it
We make compost two ways.
Compost Bin Method
We have a black, cylindrical compost bin we purchased from Bunnings for $40. It has a lid on the top, and two sliding panels that can be removed if necessary. It sits on the ground and can be moved around the garden when empty. I call it a Dalek Composter because it has the same rough shape as a Dalek and it exterminates my weeds and scraps.
The basic recipe for compost is a 50/50 mix of ‘greens’ and ‘browns.’
Greens are: weeds, grass, lawn clippings, kitchen scraps. Kitchen scraps means almost anything that comes from your kitchen that was once alive, with the exception of fats, meats and dairy products. Peelings, tea leaves, coffee grounds, leaves, avocado skins: these are the most common kitchen scraps to end up in our compost bucket and then into the Dalek. Some people say not to add onions or citrus to the compost, but I do. I wouldn’t add a whole bagful of oranges, but a few lemon peels won’t hurt.
Browns are: manures, straw, shredded white or newspaper, leaves, wood chips, old potting mix and soil. I also add moderate amounts of woodash from our fireplace, but only a few handsful at a time. Woodash adds potash to the brew, but too much can raise the PH as it is alkaline. That being said, my husband admitted to me the other day that he accidentally tipped an entire bucket of ashes in the compost bin a month ago, and the worms are all still wriggling away, so it can’t have done too much damage.
Manure is very important, particularly if it is chicken or another bird manure. Composting is positive for the manure, and manure is positive for the compost. Manure ‘activates’ the compost, helping it to break down much more quickly than if it had not been added. A few shovels of chicken poo can speed up the process by six weeks. If you don’t have manure, a cup of blood and bone or dynamic lifter will do the job.
Composting is also important for bird manures. Bird manure is high in urea. Their manure has to be composted before use, or it will burn plants. Six weeks in a Dalek and it will be good to go.*
The final important ingredient is compost worms, 1000 of which you can literally buy in a box off the shelf at Bunnings for $30. Toss them in the bin along with your compost scraps and let them go.
I don’t pay attention to my worms, except to toss them back in when I dig the compost over. They are fed when I top up the compost, and the moisture in the bin keeps them watered. We share a mutually beneficial relationship, but we don’t need to overshare.
The mix of browns and greens should be roughly equal. I don’t layer it carefully. I just toss it in as I have each component, and every month or so, I dig it over. I do this the annoying way, but lifting the composter up, shifting it over a bit, and then re-digging all the contents back into the bin. You can buy fancy compost aerators that go all the way to the bottom of the bin and apparently make my cumbersome process unnecessary. However, I like to dig it over. When I do this, I can see how it is progressing, and make any changes. If it is too dry, I water it. If it needs more brown or green, I can add it. I can see whether the worms are still alive (they are).
Truthfully, I never have to water my compost – if anything I have to watch the moisture to make sure it is not too wet. If it looks like it is getting too soggy, I need to add some more browns.
Making compost is a lot like making pizza dough. You can tell by eye and feel if it is going to work out, and if it seems too soggy or too dry, add a little more flour (brown) or a little more water (green). Knead it (turn it) and let it prove until it is ready. In Summer that will be a lot less time than in Winter, when the cold naturally slows down the composting process.
Just don’t make pizza with it. Grow tomatoes with it instead, and use them on a pizza.
If using a Dalek, you can lift the little side flaps and just dig out the bottom layer. Then push down the top layers with a shovel and keep adding.
*If you ever get your hands on elephant poo, compost the heck out of that too, unless you want elephant sized weeds in your garden. Don’t ask how I know. Just trust me.
Next post: Trench composting
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