Wednesday, August 31, 2016

How to Start a Compost Pile

The short version of this post:

Composting is awesome! Just make a pile of dead leaves, and bury your kitchen scraps in it. Boom. You’re saving the world.
I love this drawing so much, but I have no idea who made it! Does anyone know the illustrator so I can credit them?

The long version of this post:

Home composting is a vital step in living a less wasteful life. In an average American residence, up to 40% of the contents of the garbage can are kitchen scraps that could easily be transformed from slimy carrot ends into rich black earth. I’ve always thought composting was kind of cool, but I didn’t see the point unless I was actively keeping a garden. After all, food scraps will decompose in the landfill, right?

After some reading, I learned that, no, they don’t— at least, not for decades. Organic matter needs light, air, and water to decompose, three elements that you won’t find in a landfill. As the scraps slowly decay without oxygen, they release methane gas, which is much more harmful to the atmosphere than the carbon dioxide that a compost pile at home produces.

With this in mind, I’d love to encourage everyone to have their own compost pile, even if they don’t garden. Organic material breaks down quickly— you won’t be overrun by dirt, I promise. Finished compost can be left on the ground, used for mulch or fertilizer, or offered to your gardening friends.
I read a couple books on composting that made it sound way more difficult than it was. True, if you want to make the scraps decompose at an optimal rate, you need to use science. However, for the casual compost-maker, your only goal is to let things rot without them getting smelly. That’s super-easy. 

How to build a basic compost pile:

1. Find a spot in your yard. I just dump my compost against the garage in a pile, although it’s probably better to have a container of some sort, such as three wooden pallets lashed together, or a circle of chicken wire. 

2. Get a stockpile of dead organic matter, like dry leaves or straw. Offer to rake your neighbors’ yards and take their leaves. Put all this “brown material” in a pile.

My kitchen compost bin
3. Start collecting food scraps in a container in your kitchen. Don’t include dairy or meat, but veggie or fruit scraps, tea bags, coffee grounds, eggshells, bread/pasta, and freezer-burned food are okay. I also throw in paper towels, bits of cardboard, and non-diseased, non-weedy yard waste. 

4. When the container gets full, use a shovel or pitchfork to bury the scraps in the pile of leaves. 

5. Keep doing this. Try to keep the pile moist so rodents don’t nest in it.

6. Every couple weeks or so, take a pitchfork and turn the pile. If you expose any slimy kitchen scraps, cover them up with dry leaves, then water the whole pile again. If it’s smelly, you need to add more dry matter. In the summer, the scraps break down very quickly, while in winter they don’t rot at all. 

You can speed up the process by turning the pile more often, cutting the scraps up smaller, and keeping the pile more consistently moist than I did. But for me, it’s a lifestyle choice more than it is a source of finished compost. When I toss potato peels or yellow kale leaves into the bin, I know that they’re destined to return to my soil and help others to grow in their place. It’s a wonderful first step in “closing the loops” of a yard’s ecosystem by allowing the waste of one function to become the starting point of another. 

Plus, watching the scraps disappear is like magic— a bit of magic that, for the sake of the environment and our overcrowded landfills, everyone needs in their life.

P.S. If you live in an apartment, here's a helpful article for composting indoors.


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