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Waste Time With Patty
Did you realize that between 12 and 14 percent of our solid waste is yard trimmings, and between 11 and 13 percent is food scraps? Did you know that this material can be recycled?
Composting is the decomposition of plant remains and other once-living materials to make an earthy, dark, crumbly substance that is excellent for adding to houseplants or enriching garden soil. It is the way to recycle your yard and kitchen wastes, and is a critical step in reducing the volume of garbage needlessly sent to the landfill for disposal.
It’s really quite easy and you don’t need any fancy containers. Some people choose to go binless, simply building a compost pile in a convenient spot on the ground. Others build bins from materials such as recycled pallets, or two-by-fours and plywood.
Good composting is a matter of providing the proper environmental conditions for microbial life. Compost is made by billions of microbes (fungi, bacteria, etc.) that digest the yard and kitchen wastes (food) you provide for them. If the pile is cool enough, worms, insects, and their relatives will help out the microbes. All of these will slowly make compost out of your yard and kitchen wastes under any conditions. However, like people, these living things need air, water, and food.
It is important to make sure that there are plenty of air passageways into your compost pile. Some compost ingredients, such as green grass clippings or wet leaves, mat down very easily into slimy layers that air cannot get through. Other ingredients, such as straw, don't mat down easily and are very helpful in allowing air into the center of a pile. To make sure that you have adequate aeration for your pile and its microbes, thoroughly break up or mix in any ingredients that might mat down and exclude air. You can also turn the pile to get air into it, which means completely breaking it apart with a spade or garden fork and then piling it back together in a more 'fluffed-up' condition.
Ideally, your pile should be as moist as a wrung-out sponge to fit the needs of compost microbes. If your pile is drier than this, it won't be very good microbial habitat, and composting will be slowed significantly. If your pile is a great deal wetter, the sodden ingredients will be so heavy that they will tend to mat down and exclude air from the pile, again slowing the composting process (and perhaps creating odor problems). If you are using dry ingredients, such as leaves or hay, you'll need to moisten them as you add them to the pile. Kitchen fruit and vegetable wastes generally have plenty of moisture, as do fresh green grass clippings and garden thinnings. Watch out for far-too-soggy piles in wet climates (a tarp may help to keep rain off during wet weather). In dry climates, it may be necessary to water your pile occasionally to maintain proper moisture.
“Food” for your compost consists of “Browns” and Greens” 'Browns' are dry and dead plant materials such as straw, dry brown weeds, autumn leaves, and wood chips or sawdust. Because they tend to be dry, browns often need to be moistened before they are put into a compost system.
"Greens" are fresh (and often green) plant materials such as green weeds from the garden, kitchen fruit and vegetable scraps, green leaves, coffee grounds and tea bags, fresh horse manure, etc. Compared to browns, greens have more nitrogen in them. Nitrogen is a critical element in amino acids and proteins, and can be thought of as a protein source for the billions of multiplying microbes.
A good mix of browns and greens is the best nutritional balance for the microbes. This mix also helps out with the aeration and amount of water in the pile. Browns, for instance, tend to be bulky and promote good aeration. Greens, on the other hand, are typically high in moisture, and balance out the dry nature of the browns.
Grass clippings can be composted but be cautious to add grass clippings in very thin layers, or thoroughly mix them in with other compost ingredients, as they otherwise tend to become slimy and matted down, excluding air from the pile. The best thing to do with grass clippings is to leave them on the lawn.
Fruit and vegetable peels/rinds, tea bags, coffee grounds, eggshells, and similar materials are great stuff to compost. They tend to be high in nitrogen (this puts them in the 'greens' category), and are usually quite soft and moist. As such, kitchen wastes need to be mixed in with drier/bulkier materials to allow complete air penetration.
Human, dog and cat feces should not be placed in compost piles because of the possibility of disease transmission. Meat scraps, bones, grease, whole eggs and dairy products also should not be added to compost piles because they can attract rodents. Diseased plant material or weeds that have gone to seed may be undesirable in a compost pile.
A common misunderstanding about compost piles is that they must be hot to be successful. This just isn't true. If you have good aeration and moisture, and the proper ingredient mix, your pile will decompose just fine at temperatures of 50 degrees Fahrenheit or above.
Your compost pile will probably go dormant in the winter. No problem -- it'll start back up again when the springtime thaw comes.
Patricia Duguay is the executive director of the River Valley Healthy Communities Coalition and the chair of the Northern Oxford Regional Solid Waste Board.