Compost: The Trash That Is Really Treasure

| 9/6/2010 11:32:48 AM

Here’s the wrong way to compost: throw your fruit and veggie peels in the yard. Yet, until I moved into my own home, it was my tactic of choice. I am not proud of my sloppy plan but I will say I did have a very lush yard. I lived in a carriage house behind a mansion on what was affectionately known as “the compound.” It was so easy to tuck banana peels and decaying tomatoes under the bushes. Now? Not so much. 

compostphotoI now live on what is affectionately known as a double lot (as you can see from the photo at left, taken this past April). It is both exciting and daunting to grapple with this soil, sod, and space. Exciting because I will finally have the opportunity to actualize my own suburban oasis and grow food (instead of grass). Daunting because my yard skills start and end with raking. Before this summer, I had never mowed a lawn or planted a seed — but I've been up for the challenge. I think.

My past few posts were dedicated to getting my hands in the dirt with the help of beloved local farmers with whom I am doing a yard-share and committed local citizens intent on populating our town with fruit trees. But I also started something each and every one of us can manage solo: composting (the right way).

In gardening circles, compost is often referred to as black gold. It’s a rich, dark, earthy substance that’s created when organic matter such as yard trimmings, coffee grounds, and select food scraps break down. Compost nourishes the soil, improves water infiltration, and increases crop yields. Roughly one-third of what ends up in landfills — more than 30 million tons of organic waste — can actually be composted if the material returns to the earth. But most landfill waste decomposes anaerobically (without oxygen), breaks down at glacial pace, and generates the highly concentrated greenhouse gas methane in the process. (In waste management circles, you hear of “mummified” orange peels and hot dog buns.) If we divert these materials, we can generate amazing nutrients for our garden, reduce some of the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change, and save landfill space. California’s leading the pack in terms of mandating composting, but you can turn trash into treasure no matter where you live.

Before you start tossing cucumber peelings off your front porch (as I once did), take note: in order for substances to break down, you need to layer nitrogen-rich green materials — such as grass and fruit or vegetable clippings — with brown materials high in carbon — including leaves, twigs, and hay.  Some composters will break down a number of materials, but, in general, avoid composting bones, meat, fish, or any oily or fatty food. That’s the kind of material that will break down slowly and attract unwanted visitors such as mice and rats.

Once you’ve struck the balance between brown and green, make sure the compost is slightly moist (so it doesn’t dry out) and well aerated. The easiest way to keep the air circulating is to stir your compost or try a tumbler composter. Because of my mouse debacle, I’ve become a little rodent-phobic, so am trying out the fully enclosed Green Johanna composter. It comes with a winter jacket and will break down materials at a moderate pace year-round.

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