My personal highlight of 2015 was when I successfully negotiated the trade of beer for a compost bin. I’d just moved into a new house with a big backyard and installed my clothesline, and while I was itching to get my composting started, I also wanted to somehow avoid the $80-$100 cost of buying a bin brand new. I spied this beauty sitting unused in a back alley and left a note with my phone number, offering to buy it. The kind-hearted (and, apparently beer-loving) compost bin owner texted me and told me I could have it in exchange for a six-pack of beer.
I was so elated by this that I made it a 12-pack instead, did the hand-off, and skipped all the way home.
A composting conundrum
Apartment living isn’t terribly conducive to composting, although I did have an indoor worm compost at one point, so having the chance to turn food waste into handfuls of rich black earth was unbelievably exciting to me and I got started right away.
One day, months later, as I made the trek to the corner of my backyard, I realized I had absolutely no idea how composting worked. I knew I liked it because it reduced waste and eliminated smelly garbage pails, but as far as I knew I just put everything into a big black box and then dirt magically appeared at the bottom a few months later. Obviously, the food I was adding into the bin was decomposing, but how? And why?
More to the point, what could I be doing to speed up and improve the efficacy of the composting process? Well kids, buckle up. You’re about to learn more than you ever wanted to know.
First of all, why compost at all? The simple answer is because the benefits are incredible. According to the EPA, food waste accounts for 14% of the waste stream, adding up to more than 34 million tons a year. When food waste ends up in a landfill it gets buried under mounds of other garbage where, deprived of oxygen, it decomposes to produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Adding that food waste to a compost pile, on the other hand, and supplying it with the necessary water and oxygen, breaks down into nutrient-rich soil.
First, a quick rundown of the basics. In its most stripped-down form, composting involves layering nitrogen-rich food scraps (green waste) with carbon-rich leaves, shredded cardboard, coffee grounds, paper, etc. (brown waste). Generally speaking, acceptable items in compost piles include fruit and vegetable scraps and peels, tea bags, those aforementioned coffee grounds, and also some unexpected additions like dryer lint and hair.
These basic components of a compost pile are like the ingredients of a fantastic cake, you’ve added them all together and now you have to set the timer, and let it bake!
When your compost pile strikes a great balance of green and brown waste, millions of microscopic organisms set up shop and take on the task of breaking it down. With this perfect combination of carbon and nitrogen, and by adding moisture and oxygen into the mix, a host of bacteria and fungi are able to get to work digesting the organic matter in your compost pile. The decomposition process has begun!
If getting this right stresses you out, relax. There isn’t a specific list you need to follow, nor a one-size-fits-all recipe for a healthy compost bin, but looking at the state of your compost tells you all you need to know about what you need to add more or less of.
If your compost pile is stinky, you’ve likely added too much nitrogen-rich green waste. When there’s too much nitrogen, the pile may get too wet for aerobic bacteria to thrive and properly do their job. Your kitchen scraps just sit there rotting, rather than being broken down. To combat this problem, add layers of leaves or shredded paper, and be sure to turn your compost pile frequently (just like a cake, it needs a good mixing every so often to really come together.)
A slimy compost pile indicates the opposite problem, too much water, not enough air, and not enough nitrogen rich materials either. In this case, the waste materials mat down so densely that air is prevented from reaching the center and the decomposition process slows down to a crawl. The solution to this problem is to fluff up the pile and allow oxygen to penetrate the pile, either by turning it often or adding bulky items like straw or shredded corn cobs.
If your pile is bone dry, add some water to provide bacteria a wet environment in which to thrive.
When you break it down like this, composting is a breeze. You add your ingredients and then monitor your compost pile to see what it needs more (or less) of, adjusting the ingredients. In the meantime, you’re cutting down kitchen waste, sparing the environment of that toxic methane gas that it would have been produced in a landfill and investing in rich, dense, beautiful soil to grow next year’s garden.
If you strike up a conversation with a die-hard gardener and mention composting, you’ll notice they speak of the resulting soil with an unmistakable reverence. There’s a reason. Compost endows your garden with innumerable benefits, including improved soil structure, increased nutrient content, less water use, and also works to ward off plant diseases. That’s a whole lot of good that comes from just collecting old apple cores and coffee grounds into a pile in your backyard.
This spring, it’ll be just about a year since I sneakily bartered for my secondhand compost bin. The other day, as I was taking out our latest offerings I peeked in the little door at the bottom of the bin and there it was. Rich, black soil. Gold!
I couldn’t stop smiling.
Feature image credit: Dan Kosmayer / Shutterstock