Spring Into Composting

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Spring is here, and with that extra hour of sunlight upon us, it is time to start thinking about getting back out into the garden, or at the very least, laying down the foundation for this summer’s bountiful harvest. Dig through most of our trash bins (I’m not volunteering), and you will find that most of us have one major item in common – food waste.

Good for the Garden, Good for the Earth

According to the U.S. EPA, “Yard trimmings and food residuals together constitute 24 percent of the U.S. municipal solid waste stream.” And lest you think that your compostables are off to do just that in the landfill when buried underneath everybody else’s garbage, think again: Food and yard waste rots and emits methane, a global warming gas. According to NASA, methane is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Compare the landfill route with backyard composting, which adheres to natural systems and puts our food and yard waste back to work doing what nature intended – enriching the soil so it can grow more food.

Choosing the composting system that is best for your is the first step. If you do not have room for a larger system like this, composting techniques that use less space are available. Photo: blog.nj.com

Choosing the composting system that is best for you is the first step. If you do not have room for a larger system like this, composting techniques that use less space are available. Photo: blog.nj.com

Spring Into It

According to Jeffrey Simeon, the  Backyard Composting Program Specialist for Santa Barbara’s Public Works Department, “While you can start composting any time of the year, spring is a great time to begin. As the air temperatures increase and rain falls or snow melts, the micro and macro organisms in the soil become more active.”

All you need to start your compost is the organic waste found in your kitchen, yard and garden. Outside, it’s warming up, gardens are waking up and melting snow is probably uncovering decomposing twigs and branches.  Depending on the system you choose, you may also need to purchase a bin or some worms for vermicomposting.

A System for Every Lifestyle

Whether you live in an apartment and only have a small deck or porch, or you have a large yard and garden, there is a composting method that is right for you. According to The Answer is Backyard Composting
and Yard Waste Reduction
, a booklet available online from Santa Barbara County Public Works, when deciding on a system, it is important to ask yourself these four questions:

  • What materials do I want to compost?
  • What volume of materials do I generate for composting?
  • How much time and effort can I dedicate to the maintenance of a composting system?
  • How much yard space, if any, do I have available for a composting system?

Depending on your answers, you can then establish a vermicomposting bin, an aerobic bin, an anaerobic bin or a multi-bin system. For example, vermicomposting and aerobic bins take up the least amount of space, so they are better for urban composters, but they also have less capacity for processing waste.

Make Way for New Matter

If you already had a compost pile in the fall, clear out the humus (nutrient rich finished compost) from your bin. If using the humus in your garden, Simeon recommends spreading it out for a few days on a plot of land to let the compost age a bit before planting, or you can just sprinkle it directly onto your lawn.

Start Collecting the Goodies

Compost ingredients are generally broken down into two main categories – “green” and “brown.”

“Brown” ingredients are leavings from your lawn and garden that tend to be older and dryer. They will take longer to decompose, but they are a necessary complement to the wetter “green” ingredients that may come from your kitchen or weeding efforts.

Leftover leaves and weeds are a good base ingredients when starting a new pile. You may also have tree trimmings, which should be chopped into small pieces, as they take a long time to break down. Add kitchen waste as it is available, and keep the pile moist in order to encourage the right level of decomposition, Simeon recommends keeping your pile as wet “as a wrung out sponge.”

You’re a Natural

No matter what type of composting system you use, be sure to utilize nature’s cycles. According to Simeon, “With all your plants and compost helpers (good bacteria, fungi, worms, bugs) waking up from the winter, your pile will be composting in no time. If you want to introduce these little guys to your new pile, you can add some of last year’s compost or just a handful of soil.”

Simeon also recommends patience, especially with a new pile and the changing season. He says, “Remember, composting takes time, so even if your pile isn’t hot and steaming it doesn’t mean you aren’t composting correctly; it just means you are composting more slowly, so don’t get discouraged.”

Composting is an excellent way to establish a sustainable waste system in your own backyard. If you need further incentive to get out there and start your own system, imagine all of the delicious fruits and veggies that you could be enjoying year-round thanks to your efforts this spring.

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  1. I started a three bin compost system in my backyard about a year ago. After putting the bins in place, I can honestly say that I spend no more than 15 minutes per week tending it. Once or twice a week I put the compostables collected in my house and from work, add some dry leaves, mix and then water. 8 or so weeks later I have compost! My three bins are organized as dry leaves, compost composting, and the new “add to pile”. I found this works great because I have to way to pull the completed compost from the bottom of my bins. These are old 65 gallon curbside trashcans with the bottom cut off and holes in the side provided by my city. This works really well as a passive system in that it sits and “cooks” until it’s ready. If I were to make any changes to how I do it, I would have different bins, ones that were raised up off the ground on a platform of sorts, had a door or access to the lower portion, and had closed bottoms with a spigot. This way I could collect compost from the door before the top portion was done and compost tea from the spigot, and would make it easier to keep my garden and plants fertilized.

  2. Get suggestions. I planned to start on last year, but never got around to it. Maybe I will make more of an effort this year. I have a nice spot on the side of my house to setup. Does sunlight/shade matter?

  3. Thanks for the article — I appreciate the bit of encouragment about not getting discouraged. As far as bin placement goes, my bin is in the shade. This prevents it from drying out faster. However, if you have an enclosed bin or if you check the moisture a little more frequently the bin can easily be in a sunny spot.

  4. I have heard that potato peels should NOT be added to a compost pile, but thrown in the trash. Can anyone tell me why this might be so? No explanation was given by the “expert” who wrote this in his book about composting. Thanks. -Donna

  5. This is useful information for those of us who have been wanting to start composting. One question…What kind of “guests” will a compost bin like the one pictured attract?

  6. I started composting on my balcony a little over a year ago, fell in love with it, how it made me feel and look at garbage and organic materials. Now I’ve got my own site for it! For urbanites balcony composting is definitely where it’s at.

  7. With a little effort one can compost virtually everything that they would otherwise send to the landfill. Since my family started composting we have reduced our trash from 6-7 bags per week to just 1.

  8. I have always wondered how to start my own composting system in the backyard. Great post! We need to start recycling all that we use. Composting is such a great idea. I have asked around, and really not that many people know how to start such a system. I will forward this post. Thanks for sharing.

    – Maurizio Maranghi –

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