Sunday, June 24, 2012
Books have been written on the art and science of composting: correct mixture of wet and dry ingredients, how to get the optimum temperature, worms vs no worms -- the number of topics and debates is endless. I will probably get back to this down the road. Today, however, I am writing only for lazy people like me. We want to contribute to the environment, but not if it saddles us with a second job.
Most of us have heard the basic rules of composting: don't put any animal material in your compost and do not add any weeds. Compost needs air, but not too much air; it needs to be damp, but not wet, and it needs to be stirred around regularly. To this I would add a major rule: make it easy on yourself. Make composting easy enough and convenient enough that you might be able to convince a teenager to do it. You can always get more ambitious later. At the beginning the key thing is consistency and the formation of habitual practices.
The first way to make things easy is to limit the material available for your compost pile. If you have a lawn, the use of a self-mulching mower is a must. It is senseless to throw lawn clippings into a compost bin when they can go directly back into the ground. I also use my mower to mulch up all my fall leaves. I blow them out of my beds into the yard where the mower can reach them. then I blow most of the shreds back into the beds. This works even on the tough old oak leaves I have-- eventually. Meanwhile I have shredded leaves available to add to my compost whenever it gets soggy.
Once you mulch your grass and tree leaves, most of your potential compost material is gone. What is left is mainly from perennials you have pruned and kitchen scraps. We use our garbage disposal in the sink only during the winter. The rest of the year we compost every vegetable and fruit that is peeled, trimmed or squeezed. We have a kitchen composter next to the sink to make this easy. It is just a crock large enough to fit a lunch bag. It has a lid with holes in the top and a removable handle. When it is full, I take it out the back door and add it to my compost. The bag helps everything slip right out. If it is still in good shape it gets re-used. If not, it gets dumped into the compost with everything else, and I put in a new bag.
If my kitchen composter breaks I will try to get a new one. But any ceramic pot that holds about 1/2 gallon will do. A lid is not really necessary other than for aesthetic reasons.
I am also partial to compost barrels with a crank for rotation like the one in the picture. These cost more than other compost devices, but for me convenience trumps all. What good does a cheap compost device do you if you have given up using it after two weeks? The barrel does not create a blight in your yard either, so it does not have to be banished to some Siberia in the far corner of your back yard. I keep mine close to the back door so that my trips with the kitchen composter will be as short as possible. When you are working in the yard already the composter can be used anywhere. To really use all your kitchen waste, however, you better make that trip easy and keep your barrel close.
My crock fills up every two or three days. It is simple to get it to my compost drum all of ten feet from the bottom step of my back porch. I open the hatch, dump the crock, replace the hatch, and turn the crank a couple of times and head back in. I can even brave the 95 degree heat for the five minutes it takes to do this and run back inside. AND by making regular trips with my kitchen scraps I also make sure that the compost is turned regularly -- something all of us are prone to forget.
To keep things easy do not worry about all the science stuff that I mentioned at the beginning, like the temperature of the pile. These questions are fun, but they are all about making the composting process more efficient. I don't make my living delivering compost, so I don't care how efficient my compost barrel is, as long as it works. I DO care about how efficient I am as I compost on the fly. Without grass clippings to fill it up, my composter seems to be a bottomless pit. I keep tossing stuff in, but it never fills up. "What never?" "Well, hardly ever." I dump my barrel into my vegetable garden twice a year -- the last time just before the first hard freeze. And I dump everything out -- even the things put in two days ago. It will be tilled into the soil as soon as I get around to it -- maybe not until next spring.
If after a year or so you decide you are more ambitious than I am, the first step would be to buy another drum just like the first one. This doubles your capacity, but it does something better as well. It allows you to reserve one composter for finishing off the composting process while you add new material to the other. If you are still going after two years, you will be telling me how to improve. My only claim to virtue is that I have kept at it for 10 years. So it can't be that hard, right?