Sustainability Series; Composting

Brian Bill

Brian Bill | July 21, 2022

Sustainability Series; Composting

Waves crash upon an empty rocky shore as the bright orange sun rises over the neverending horizon. On this day and many others, a flower will bloom for the first time while another will bloom its last. Nature can be both an awe inspiring thing of immense beauty while simultaneously a humble reminder of the circle of life. While I don’t mean to bog you down with confronting mortality or abstract Walt Whitman-esk poetry rifts about the vast and beautiful world that surrounds us, though that does sound fun. No, I merely mean to get you in the mind state of life leading to death then in turn to decay which can bring about new life! Specifically in your garden. Yes, I mean to talk to you about composting! The wonderful way to take your garden decay and make bountiful fertilizer for your next gardening adventure. Not only can composting help you in the long run, it’s also a perfect way to help you cut down on your trash by providing a place to put used organic scraps. So sit back, relax and learn all about the wonderful world of composting. 

Time for my little sustainability rant, I’ll be quick about it I promise. Composting is a great thing for you, your garden and the planet. Organic material breaking down and rejoining the soil is a part of nature and helps the earth retain necessary soil health which is the indicating factor of a geographical area's viability to sustain life. It will help your garden by providing vital nutrients to your soil thus promoting healthy plant growth down the line. This will help you grow bountiful plants that undergo photosynthesis providing necessary oxygen to the earth. Lastly it’s good for you because you can cut back on the amount of waste you produce and better performing gardens means potentially more fruits and veggies in your diet. Not to mention, it gives you another excuse to be outside in your garden!

Now it is not known exactly when composting first came about, but the general consensus would tell you it arrived not too long after the origins of farming itself. If you think about it, there were no industrial dump sites back in the day and most human waste was made of organic materials. I think it’d be safe to assume that humans still had a specific spot where they disposed of used items and given that items were more than likely biodegradable, these trash spots would essentially turn into prehistoric composting sites. Winds would eventually carry seeds into the compost which would then work its magic and grow some pretty healthy plants. It would only be a matter of time at that point for humans to realize that plants grew well in areas where organic material was allowed to break down over time. They may not have had the advanced scientific understanding of microorganisms and nutrient content in compost, but they didn’t need to in order to observe the benefits of using it. I’m assuming you’d find a similar story were you to look into the history of manure, but that’s a different story for a different blog. Needless to say, composting has been around for quite a while now and there’s some pretty good reasons for that.

First and foremost, composting is a great way to add nutrients, microorganisms and other beneficial organic material into your soil to make sure your plants have what they need to grow strong. As I covered in a previous blog, each time you plant in soil, some of the nutrients and other beneficial materials are used up and eventually are depleted. At this point, the soil becomes pretty much useless in terms of growing plants successfully. If you want to combat this issue there are a few ways to go about it. If you want a quick solution with short lived results, go for some fertilizer. Sure fertilizers are great to use while your plants are growing as they boost the nutrient and vitamin count that your plant’s root systems are exposed to, but they don’t stick around in the soil for too long afterwards. Fertilizers, at least those available commercially, are often just chemical mixtures aimed at providing immediate results and help your plants become larger than they could prior. If you want to really rejuvenate your garden plot you can either replace the soil entirely or mix in some high quality compost between planting. Be warned, adding and mixing in compost between planting will help your soil last longer but you will eventually need to replace the soil in the bed in part or in full eventually. 

To start your composting adventure you will need some space. If you are trying to do this inside your greenhouse, you may want to find a work around for the smell. Using a bin with a lid or some sort of carbon based filter on top of it will help cut down on the scent of decaying organic material. Let’s be honest, compost doesn’t smell great. Tumbler bins are great for composting because they can be rotated to mix up the compost materials and aid in speeding up the process. If you are composting outside, make sure you find an empty space. Bare earth is the best place to start a pile, adding next a layer of straw or hay. Next you want to layer the different materials as you compile your compost. A series of dry, wet, dry, wet will be the best option ensuring you are adding enough nitrogen rich materials as well as carbon rich ones. The mix of the two chemicals is the driving force behind the efficacy of your compost pile. Make sure you keep the pile moist, giving it a watering when you water your plants is a good practice. Lastely, give your pile a turn every few weeks to make sure the pile is homogenous and every bit gets access to sunlight at some point to aid in the breakdown process. 

Okay, so you’ve got the basics of composting down now, but what exactly are you supposed to compost? Well, if it once came from the earth and wasn’t processed beyond belief at some point, go ahead and toss it in. Kitchen scraps, (not including meat) like fruit and veggie rinds, apple cores, banana peels, older salad greens among many other things that are avoiding my mind right now are all fair game. Do you have a lot of hanging flower baskets around? While deadheading your flowers, go ahead and throw the spent pedals in your compost! Did you recently cut your grass, toss the green lawn clippings right in! The nitrogen rich grass clippings are great for your pile! Do you have some old brown paper bags laying around? So long as they aren’t covered in some sort of gloss, shred those bad boys up and throw them in your pile! Big fan of coffee or tea? Your grounds and tea leaves make excellent additions to your compost pile! Pretty much any organic material you have laying around is fair game for your compost pile. 

However, you need to keep in mind the amount of time each different material will take to break down. General rule of thumb is larger pieces will take longer to break down. That should be pretty obvious, but you never know. If you have large inedible leaves from a plant, cut them into smaller pieces so they break down faster. It’s also very important to make sure you have different colors in your compost pile. Not only do different materials break down at different rates, they bring different nutrients and vitamins to the party. If your compost pile is almost entirely green, things could take a while. Of course the inverse, if you have too many brown or darker colored items, your compost could be lacking in key nutrients like nitrogen. A good mix of newer and older organic materials will help ensure that your compost pile breaks down evenly in a timely manner and has all the right components to really boost your soils performance. If you’re worried about adding too much “green” material, (in this case green meaning newer and not necessarily having to do with color) because you add a lot of kitchen scraps, get yourself a kitchen composter. These are usually smaller metal trash cans with a carbon filter in the lid that will cut back on smells. While this will not be able to replace your larger compost pile, it can help you cut back on the “green” material you add. Simply toss your kitchen scraps into your canister and allow them to start their decaying process before you add them to your larger pile. This way they have a head start in their breakdown and your compost pile’s process isn’t slowed by the presence of “green” material. 

I’m hoping you’ve kept reading this far because this next bit is pretty important for the success of your composting venture. Your choice of composting bin type is important and it comes down to where you live. If you have space and are composting a lot of yard waste or a good mix of both yard waste and kitchen scraps you can use an open air composting system. Which, as described above, is started on raw dirt covered in straw. If you live in a smaller space or are just composting kitchen scraps, go ahead and get yourself a bin of sorts, a tumbler is going to be best as you can turn it without having to open it up. Not having to smell your compost is pretty important, I can’t stress that enough. A large scale open air compost pile in a small back yard with minimal airflow is not an inviting feature in any landscaping plan. Also take into consideration the area in which you live, your climate can make or break your compost venture. Too much rain is not great, but neither is too much sun. Yet another reason a covered bin is recommended above open air. 

Thanks everyone for reading! I’ll be back next week with another blog for you. Best of luck in your composting adventure!

-Brian Bill