Saturday, November 13, 2010

Composting 101

(Notes from the girl who did it all wrong.)

I just filled a good portion of my raised garden with my own, home grown compost - after two years of effort. For anyone that knows anything about compost - you might realize that it really shouldn't take two years to make compost. So let me tell you a story...

I remember hearing about composting long, long ago...I must have been in middle school. I was the only preteen in my corner of the world concerned about such things...if only I had known back then that I was revolutionary....and not weird. (sigh) I convinced my mother for a short time to let me dump the coffee grounds and tea bags in a section of the garden - I'm quite sure she thought I was insane. It didn't take long before the weather sucked, my allergies ran a muck and I lost interest.

So one day as I was walking through a store and I noticed an affordable composting box - oh yes, I had to have it. I promptly brought it home and started stuffing it full of goodies in hopes of making lovely dirt.

About that same time a couple of things occured...
1. We had a shipment of like 50 pounds of some citrus fruit
2. Fall. And in our yard that means many, many leaves....
3. It also means sticky balls. Lots of sticky balls.

Generally, I am a rule follower. But sometimes in life - I have to learn lessons the hard way. Do yourself a favor...and if you plan to start composting - just trust me...

Mistake #1 The instructions say don't include citrus fruits in your compost. They aren't kidding. I dumped the skins of that 50 pounds of citrus fruits into the bin. We also consume a ridiculous amount of kiwi in this house. It seemed wasteful to just throw that out - so I threw it in the bin.

Well, turns out - they say not to do it for a reason. The bugs / worms / icky creatures that do the hard work don't like citrus fruit. They will show you their dislike by NOT living in your compost bin - therefore, no compost for you.

Mistake #2 Leaves are great for compost - you can really lend a hand to the process by raking your leaves (dry), putting them in a large container and then pulverizing them with a weed eater. It's kind of a lawn tool blender. And it's amazing how much this can cut down on the bulk - and make your large leaf pile about 1/3 of it's original size. However, leaves are dry (that may seem obvious to you - you are smart readers). You need to compensate this dryness either with more frequent / heavy watering OR by adding much more wet matter to the pile.

If you don't keep the compost pile wet - you will have lots of the wrong kinds of critters living there. Mainly, I found ants - lots of ants. There were other critters in there as well - but I didn't look that close...I was too busy screaming "Eeewwwww" and trying to ensure none of them got the chance to crawl on me.

Mistake #3 Sticky balls. If you have a sticky ball tree - first, I'm sorry. Second, you likely already know this lesson. If you do not have a sticky ball tree - drive around your neighborhood. Find someone who does. Send them a sympathy card. (Really, they need your support.) They are really pretty trees but their beauty is soon hidden by their devilish little balls. They make your yard a landmine field. They make your lawnmower a deadly weapon. They make you crazy. They never end. And in the world of compost - they take 10 million years to decompose. Save yourself the headache - burn them or use them as mulch in areas that you would like to discourage anything from going...but do not fool yourself into thinking they will break down in your compost pile. It won't happen. Two years later - you will still find them there - laughing at you from the bottom of the pile.

They should alter that saying about after a nuclear explosion - all that would survive would be the cockroaches, Twinkies, and sticky balls.

After two years into the art of making compost - and so far having was time to admit I had a problem. So I went to my garden center - bought some compost booster and got really productive this summer. I added very little to the compost pile this summer - wet matter only. The bin was nearly overflowing. After garden season ended - I dug out all the magical compost (thank you to the compost booster for working - and to myself for reading / following the directions) and when I got to the sticky ball layer - I threw all those under our large pine tree. We'll keep using this plan for future seasons and plan to never pay for mulch in that area again.

Now that I am starting from a clean slate, I'm super excited about doing it all the right way this time. (And having a product by next season.) Produce cut into small sections. Coffee grounds. Tea bags. Lots of banana peels. I emptied all my summer potting soil there as well. I've also started putting napkins and paper towels there unless they have come in contact with something offensively dirty. I'm also planning to put my toilet paper tubes into the compost. (I would consider composting other paper products but I recycle those for a local charity.) Occasionally a piece of cardboard will make it to the compost pile. We will add some leaves to the pile - assuming that it ever stops raining long enough for them to dry out.

I'm still completely committed to composting - I like to reduce my trash and I like to make my own rich soil. If you garden or if you just want to be the greenest kid on the block - you might give it a go too.