Ah, spring. Hopefully by the time you read this, it will have finally poked its overdue nose into these frigid outlands and launched the season's chores. There's soil to till, debris to clean up, mowers to tune, and, if you haven't yet, a compost bin to build.
Composting is the other side of the recycling coin. Just as we trundle our bottles and cans to the curb so should we be carting our food scraps, yard trimmings, and other organic wastes to a box in the yard where nature’s microbes can transform it all into compost, a nutrient-rich fertilizer that’s like steroids for lawns and gardens.
Compost solves a rotten situation: According to the Washington Post(1), 97% of the 35 million tons of food waste created in America each year goes straight into the garbage can along with 40% of all yard waste. That's a huge burden on our overflowing landfills, and it's crazy—why spend money creating a needless problem caused by throwing away something useful? Here's how we can do better:
- Buy or build a bin. It doesn't need to be fancy. Scrap wood, cinder blocks, old barrels—almost any material will do as long as it's not painted or stained. You need four walls at least 2'x2' (no bottom required!) and a secure lid to keep critters out. Don't make it airtight. You want air getting in. Find a sunny corner of the yard it can call home, and phase one is done.
- Get a kitchen scrap container. Again, almost anything works as long as it's got a lid to trap odors. My neighbor uses an old ice bucket. Friends repurposed a cooking pot. We bought a collector designed for the job.
- Save your scraps. You generally don't want to compost meat or dairy (too stinky!) or bones (too rot-proof!), but most everything else is fair game from produce scraps to plate scrapings, coffee grounds and filters, teabags, and eggshells. When your kitchen container is full, dump it in your bin.
Now you're composting! And for the most part, nature will do the heavy lifting. Just keep a few things in mind:
- Keep things humming by breaking big stuff like corn cobs into small pieces before you dump them.
- Stir your bin occasionally with a shovel to mix in oxygen.
- If your compost smells, it needs less water or more air.
- Don’t let things get too wet or dry. Add water or expose your pile to air as needed.
- All those microbes eating all that food can create steamy temperatures. That's a good thing: Heat = faster composting.
- The ideal compost ratio is 50% dry plant material like twigs, dried leaves, etc.; 35% moist organic matter like kitchen scraps, green weeds, and grass clippings; and 15% soil or finished compost to provide seed organisms.
- Composting takes about 6-8 weeks in warmer months. It may stop altogether in midwinter.
- Consider having two smaller bins so you can let one finish faster while you continue to fill the other
- When your compost is brown-to-black and crumbly, it's ready to spread. Till it into gardens. Add a layer to your lawn each fall. Top dress flowers beds. Scatter it around tree trunks. Add a handful to houseplants.
Photo: Amber Karnes
The Inkslinger has written about environmental issues for over 20 years and is a freelance writer for some of America's most iconoclastic companies and non-profits. His true loves include nature, music of the Americana/rock and roll variety, interior design, books, old things, good stories, pagan rituals, and his wife of 24 years, with whom he lives in an undisclosed chemical-free rural Vermont location along with his teenage daughter and two infinitely hilarious Australian shepherds!