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Compost-haste: Recycling food as fertilizer improves upon land

Steve Carroll works on a compost pile
Steve Carroll, director of public programs at Blandy Experimental Farm in Boyce, works on a compost pile at the public garden. Dennis Grundman/Daily (Buy photo)

Composting offers a clean, free option for fertilizing
Composting offers a clean, free option for fertilizing. Dennis Grundman/Daily (Buy photo)

By Laetitia Clayton -- lclayton@nvdaily.com

Any backyard gardener can help the environment by composting.

In fact, it's simple enough that anyone who wants to save money and make a difference can do it.

"It's not hard, it doesn't take a lot of work," said Steve Carroll, director of public programs at Blandy Experimental Farm in Boyce. "It's the least demanding part of gardening."

Some of the benefits of composting -- which is basically letting organic matter break down and turn into fertilizer -- include adding the organic compounds back into the soil, saving money on buying fertilizer and creating less waste that goes into a landfill.

"It's clean, it's free fertilizer," Carroll said of compost. "You're taking vegetable scraps and weeds, and you're saving money. You're recycling."

It's a good place to put yard waste like grass clippings and leaves rather than filling up plastic bags and taking them to the landfill, he said. Kitchen scraps of fruits and vegetables as well as tea bags and coffee grounds also make good compost.

At Blandy, Carroll tends a 4-foot by 4-foot open bin in a community garden. In it are weeds, roots, leaves, stems and twigs from the garden.

"Any organic material, like extra straw, can go in there," he said. "Anything you're using and growing that's organic."

Carroll said an ideal compost bin or pile should have a balance of materials known in the composting world as greens and browns. Greens are things like grass clippings, green weeds or vegetable scraps. Browns are materials like straw, paper and dead fall leaves. A good mix of the two helps the matter break down most efficiently.

The greens are rich in nitrogen, Carroll said, while browns have more carbon. Too much green can cause the compost to be too wet, and too much brown can cause it to be dry, he said.

"Composting aficionados probably argue about the balance," or how much of each should go into the compost, he said. "Almost no matter what you do, you're going to end up with some compost."

Meat and fat scraps can also be composted, Carroll said, but it causes a bad odor and can attract more insects and animals.

"The best advice is probably to stick with vegetation," he said.

Compost also needs moisture and air, which turning the pile on a regular basis can create. Carroll said he turns his compost with a pitchfork every couple of weeks or so, but it can -- and probably should -- be done weekly. He has removable slats on the front of his bin so he can easily reach the compost.

For homes without the space for a bin or pile, several types and sizes of compost containers are available online and in many home improvement stores. One type is a barrel or tumbler that sits on a stand and can be turned without opening it.

Homeowners who want to compost should be more concerned with the type of bin or container, Carroll said, because compost piles can attract unwanted animals like rats or raccoons.

"Barrels are best for home gardeners," he said.

Most compost piles take at least several months before useable material is available, but it can happen sooner.

"If you're doing everything right, you can get useable compost from it in six to eight weeks," Carroll said, though he prefers to add to Blandy's pile in the spring and fall and let it sit over the winter before using.

When compost is ready to use, it should be soft, crumbly and dark, and smell like soil, he said.

"There really shouldn't be much of a [bad] smell from a compost pile," Carroll said. "If there is a smell, it's probably too wet."

Lynne Phillips, owner of Natural Art Garden Center in Toms Brook, said compost odor also means it's still breaking down and isn't ready to be used.

"It can take a year if you just let it sit," she said, adding that a tumbler system can speed up the process.

She urged homeowners to compost, even if they aren't gardeners and aren't going to use the compost for fertilizer.

Landfills, she said, will take biodegradable green goods and use them for mulch.

"It doesn't cost you anything and it keeps compostable stuff out of the landfill," she said. "Don't throw it in your trash can."

Rotating or tumbling systems

These systems can be expensive and they are smaller than bins, but they can generate finished compost quicker. Under ideal circumstances, compost may be finished in three weeks in a rotating drum composter. Fill the container partly full with a mix of greens and moistened browns, and then give the unit a turn every day or so to aerate the ingredients and remix them. Do not pack the container full, because the ingredients won't tumble and mix if packed too tightly.

While one batch is composting, you can accumulate the materials for the next batch. Sometimes a small container kept in the kitchen can be used for this. When the first compost is finished, you can dump in the materials you've saved to make more. It's possible to maintain relatively high temperatures in drum and tumbler systems because the container acts as insulation and the constant turning keeps the microbes aerated and active.

Other types of composting include one, two and three bin systems, sheet or trench composting and worm bin composting.

-- Source: http://vegweb.com/composting


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