Friday, May 15, 2009

Compost Happens (and smells like $hit)

I've got a wooden box in my backyard that smells like shit. No, I'm not talking about the outhouse, I'm talking about my compost pile. Even though composting is a stinky hobby, it gives me great satisfaction knowing that I'm keeping reusable stuff out of the landfill.

I had the idea of starting a compost pile while working in the kitchen at my part time job. Over the course of a lunch rush a lot of little bits of food fall on the floor which get swept up and thrown in the dumpster. Tired of seeing all this food go to waste, one day after sweeping the line I put all that waste into an empty pickle bucket, closed the air-tight lid on it, and brought it home for composting.

Composting the process of decomposing organic matter in a controlled way. Decomposition happens naturally in forests and other wild places, but in the city it takes a little effort on our part to occur. The goal of composting is to combine left-over organic matter so that it creates bio-matter, a scientific term for good dirt, which can then be reincorporated into the ecosystem to help plants grow harder, better, faster, and stronger. In a way, compost (the finished product of composting) is like a nutrient rich super fertilizer that can be used with almost any planting application.

I left the bucket on the porch for about week while I went around town gathering discarded shipping pallets that most businesses toss by their dumpsters. After gathering enough pallets I set to work breaking them apart, cutting the pieces to size and building the frame and side slats. Using discarded pallets as material for a compost pile is not only free, but it also keeps those pallets out the landfill as well. It's reusing wood to help reuse organic matter.

My compost pile roughly measures 3' x 3' x 3', and has slatted sides and a chicken-wire back which helps with air flow (an extremely important ingredient in composting). It only took an afternoon to complete the build and only required a hammer, nails, and circular saw for construction. Later I'll hinge the side so I can easily access the finished compost.


There is a whole science to composting which can be intimidating if you lose sight of the fact that you're just making dirt, albeit super dirt. Ideally, a compost pile should have a 3:1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen. Carbon materials (browns) include: dry grass clippings, dry leaves, sawdust, hay, paper, and cornstalks, just to name a few. Some of these materials are difficult to find in the home but should be included in a good batch of compost. To boost the carbon matter in my pile I use sawdust, shredded office paper, and collected dry leaves.

The nitrogen (greens) half of the ratio is much easier to come by in the common home. Most vegetable and fruit wastes work great for composting, but stay away from meats and dairy products. Another great source of nitrogen matter is coffee grinds and tea leaves, as they decompose quickly and are fine in consistency. A general rule in composting is to break the matter down into as small of bits as possible so that beneficial bacteria have plenty of raw surface area to attack. So any matter you use in your compost, whether it is a carbon or a nitrogen, should be chopped into small bits. No one wants clumpy compost.

So far in my compost mix I have grass clippings, sawdust, leaves, and office paper, balanced with waste food from the restaurant which includes plenty of veggies and some bread. I also added dirt to give the mix consistency and some earthworms from the tackle shop, though the worms aren't required. Along with adding food to the pile, I turn it each day with a pitchfork (which adds to the "I'm a farmer, I work the earth" mentality) and add water to the pile.

Although I've only been composting for a week now, there's already a variety of insects like flies, ants, and worms dwelling in my pile that aid the decomposition process. A compost pile is a miniature and controlled ecosystem in itself, and I'm happy to give these beings a free source of food. Composting places me in symbiotic relationship with the material in the pile and the beings it feeds.

If you're tired of filling landfills with food scraps and grass mulch, I highly recommend composting. All these materials we usually throw away can be used to create nutrient rich planting soil which reincorporates waste into the ecosystem in a beneficial manner. Sure the process may be a little stinky, but it definitely smells better than a landfill.

If you're interested in composting check out the compost manual.

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