Friday 23 May 2014

Composting Seminar: Lessons Learned

I attended a workshop a month or so ago on composting.  I’ve composted for years but I knew I did not really know what I was doing because after months or even a full year I had nothing but rotting vegetables still.  Well, I’m exaggerating a bit because sometimes there was semi-useable compost, but it was pretty chunky. 

I can’t believe how much I learned at this event.  If you are interested, this workshop occurs a few times a year at the Giving Garden in Kemptville (“Backyard Composting Seminar”).  Please don't consider anything here as a quote from the seminar - it is just my take on what I heard, and if I have something wrong, don't blame the good volunteers who offer the workshop!

An important point for newbies is how little useable material results from composting.   It takes a LOT of corn husks, avocado skins and leftover pasta to make enough compost for even a small garden.  I started composting not just to reduce my own waste going into landfills, but to reduce my costs each year for soil additives to improve the growing conditions in my garden.  But waste from even a large family will not result in much organic material.  To be honest, it can be a bit of work to compost and not a lot of personal benefit (unless you pay for garbage bag tags as I do - $1.75 per bag – so I’ll achieve some small financial gain by putting out less garbage).  But it’s the right thing to do for your community: less waste going to landfills which also reduces the production of methane gases and if enough people get involved it may also reduce costs of garbage pickup in the long-term.

But if you want to make a bit of effort to improve your local environment, I thought I’d share a few of the most basic tips that I learned for efficient and effective composting:

1) Good compost requires an aerobic environment.  The good microbes for breaking down the material are those that need oxygen to live.  Microbes that like anaerobic environments are more likely to create methane gas.  So turn over your compost pile about once a week to foster the right aerobic conditions (I think this was my biggest failing – I pretty much was throwing stuff on top and just leaving it);  

Here is what the compost looked like in the spring following the winter I moved in (and admittedly what mine often looks like).  The previous residents had thrown a pile of large items in which were not able to break down very quickly (including a knife ... I know, weird right?). 


2) Maintain a 50/50 ratio of browns (carbon) to greens (nitrogen) with each layer that you add.  If you can’t add exactly 50/50 in each layer, that is where the turning over bit helps – if you didn’t get enough browns in one layer, add more in the next and it will all get jumbled together during the weekly turning.  Here are some examples of each to use in your composter:

Browns (Carbon)
Greens (Nitrogen)
Leaves, Dead Plants
Fruit Peels / Cores
Hay, Straw
Veggie Scraps
Peat Moss
Weeds (yes!)
Tissue / Paper Towels
Dryer Lint
Coffee Grounds
Wood Chips
Coffee Filters

*That’s right – urine is basically nitrogen so you can pee in your compost and it helps with the green balance (or pee straight into your garden, just not directly on a plant)! 

And some other materials are useful but are kind of neutral as far as this ratio goes.

Other Minerals
Wood Ash (note: ill create a more alkaline Ph)

3)  Consider keeping a layer of brown (newspaper, e.g.) on top as a cover; this will keep the fruit flies away if your lid is not sufficient (or if you don’t have a lid like me);

4) If you smell ammonia, you have too much nitrogen so add some browns to avoid the stink; 
5) Proper composting also requires moisture; if the greens are not naturally moist enough, you may need to add water, but not too much – it should be damp like a wrung-out sponge;   

6) Keep your compost in a sunny location and, preferably, on top of soil for better drainage (versus on cement); but most important for location is to keep it somewhere handy so it is not an effort to bring out your scraps!

There were other tips like the size of the bin; that is, I was told minimum size should be the black bin that most people have (same as mine in the picture above) but I don’t remember why that was important.

I’ve never produced a lot of compost mainly because I was limiting my “greens” to veggie scraps.  But knowing I can use discarded plants or weeds make a huge difference - that creates much more material for me to add.  And these are just the basics (basics which I needed a solid reminder of).

I’ll let you know how it’s all working out for me.  If you have good tips to share, please pass them along.  I’ll practice some of these tips over the summer and will report on whether or not I am finally successful with composting.

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