July 2, 2009

July baby steps challenge: composting

That's a photo of our produce scraps from the past week or so. I've been saving them because I knew composting was going to be the July baby steps challenge. Yes, I know that rubberbands aren't compost-able. Or are they? I have to admit I'm intimidated by the whole idea of composting. I don't live on a farm, I'm not a gardener, and I don't like icky smells.

What IS a baby steps challenge? Back in April, I wrote this post about how even though I'd committed to Buy Nothing New during 2009, I didn't feel like a very good role model for green living. So I pledged to Go Green, and gave myself a list of goals, like switching to homemade cleansers and line-drying the laundry, that I would attempt once a month.

So far, I made an effort to stop unwanted catalogs and junk mail in May, and started air-drying laundry in June. Both challenges have been very successful, with a few caveats. So I'm ready to start composting, and I hope some of you will join me as I make my way through this unfamiliar territory.

I was attracted to the simplicity of The Frugal Girl's method of composting, so I thought I'd start by getting a plastic tub. I asked my husband if I could use one we already have, but all the ones we own are in use, and none are ready to be replaced. So I googled something like "composting in Los Angeles" and ended up on the website of the Department of Sanitation, where I learned that once a month I could purchase a bin for $5. That date is a week from tomorrow, so I'll start by getting that bin.

I'll also start reading up on how to compost on some other websites. I need to answer some very basic questions, such as:

What exactly CAN be composted and what CAN'T
? I know eggshells are a yes, and meat is a no. I'm unclear on cooked vegetables, paper towels, and dairy.

What's a simple way to transfer items from the kitchen to the compost bin
? Do people use a "limbo" area, a smaller bin just outside the kitchen door, or maybe inside the kitchen?

How long does it take to have usable compost for gardening
? And what's with the whole "worm" thing? I can remember digging for worms when I was about three, but I'm not really looking forward to playing with worms, and I don't do any fishing.

My main purpose for doing this is to avoid the food waste. It's terrible for the environment to send food to a landfill. The compost itself will be a bonus. I don't even know if I'll use it, because our yard is a drought tolerant landscape, and I don't think it needs that kind of soil. But I can probably arrange to give my compost to someone with a vegetable garden, assuming this all works out.

One of my readers offered to point me in the right direction when I took on the challenge of composting, and even claimed it was easy. So William B, if you're out there, I'm ready to be pointed!

And anyone else who has any tips or advice, I can use all the help I can get! Also, please let me know if you'd like to join me in this challenge, or if you're an old pro at composting. You can leave your thoughts in the Comments section.

27 comments:

Meg said...

Composting can be as simple or complex as you want it to be. If you're not in any hurry for things to compost, then you can be lazy like me. My husband and I got our free composting kit from our city (i.e. a piece of fencing), fastened it in a circle, and have been throwing scraps in it without turning or watering or anything like that. (We know people who just make a pile in a corner of their property, but the fencing helps us contain things better.)

Some people even say NOT to turn it because you might hurt organisms working on it or something like that, but watering might be important if you live somewhere dry and want it to compost sometime this century. The rule of thumb is that for the best composting the pile should be wet like a wrung out sponge. However, I'd rather wait for it to rain and save our water.

We throw most of our kitchen scraps in no prob. A little bit of meat or dairy really won't hurt, but they can attract pests if you overdo it. And even if you are just adding veggie scraps, you do want to cover them with a few inches of leaves or something ("brown" material), not just to get the right balance of things but also to keep flies and other pests away.

Now, you might still get maggots, but that's fine -- so long as your compost pile isn't buzzing with a cloud of flies, which you probably don't want. Maggots can actually be very beneficial to composting. Same goes for worms. If your compost pile is over dirt, worms may find it on their own. If not, you might want to toss a few in as you find them in your yard, or see if you can pick some up from a bait place (or order them). They aren't essential, though.

Eggs shells are fine, but crush them a bit. They don't really break down well, but they're still good. Don't toss an unopened one in the pile. It will explode -- trust me. Bones and large twigs don't break down well, so leave them out if you plan on using the compost any time remotely soon. Obviously, keep out any metal or glass or harmful chemicals. I wouldn't add anything REALLY salt in large quantities. Paper can be composted, and most inks are soy I've heard -- which is safe. However, I'm more worried about other chemicals used in treating paper since I want to use my compost for veggie gardening. For example, receipts are covered in BPA. So, I'm hesitant to compost those or other paper I'm not sure about. And while hair is GREAT for plants, think twice if you use a lot of chemicals on your hair you wouldn't want in the food system (and then ask yourself if you should be putting them in your hair!). And I would never put biodegradable plastic in my compost pile if it's just going to biodegrade into smaller bits of plastic -- ick!

But really, don't worry too much. It's hard to ruin a compost pile if you stick to organic materials. We even compost our kitty's litter. That's a big taboo, but you know what, the litter is pine, and the cats aren't going to give us anything through the compost that we wouldn't get from them licking our faces -- especially since they are indoor only cats that have regular vet checks. If we were living in a more rural area and had the energy, I'd even consider composting our own waste. It can be done, but there are precautions to take.

Anyhow, on that note, check out The Humanure Handbook. You can find it online for free and it's really enlightening. It's not just about composting crap, it touches on a lot of related subjects and is actually quite an interesting read.

hiptobeme said...

It seems like the more questions we answer the more questions are asked. Love that. Thanks for exploring composting and most of all, writing about your findings! I am unable to compost in an urban setting. I have no yard, just a patio but I would like to have this for future reference. One day, I may have a yard!

lesardoises said...

You Grow Girl has great composting advice. I haven't started vermicomposting yet, but it's an indoor method that even hiptobeme could do :)

We've been outdoor composting for a few months now, following You Grow Girl's advice. Be sure to check out this great list. Unlike Meg, I would not recommend putting meat, bones, or used cat litter in the compost (the rats don't need any more food and litter just sounds dangerous).

We give ours a toss (or roll, usually, since it's in a rubbermaid garbage can) pretty often, because it can get kind of rank. Probably means we're doing something wrong, but other than that it's been really easy so far. Good luck!! This is a great baby step!

Meg said...

Just to be clear, I don't exactly "recommend putting meat, bones, or used cat litter" in the compost. It's just that those things, in moderation or with precautions aren't the big bad that most people make them out to be.

I wouldn't recommend chucking a turkey carcass into the compost (unless you REALLY know what you're doing and bury it DEEP). However, a mouthful of meat mixed in with some veggies isn't shouldn't be a problem -- and I'd hate to see someone toss a pot of old paella in the garbage because they couldn't dig out every last piece of meat. I can't say there will never be any problems, as it may vary by environment, but we live in a rather rural urban area and have never had problems with pests or other critters.

As I said before, bones take forever to break down. So, no I don't recommend them. But again, the odd chicken bone isn't going to ruin your compost pile and some people bury a lot worse deep in their piles.

As for the kitty litter, I get a lot of people going "Oh no! How dangerous!" but I've yet had ANYONE tell me what exactly I'm going to catch from using that compost, even in a veggie garden -- especially after it has sat in the compost pile for a year! Yes, you can get things from cats. However, these are healthy indoor only cats. And trust me, if they had something to give me, I'd get it a lot more directly. I'm much more worried about the neighbors' cats doing their business in my garden. If someone can tell me what I should be worried about SPECIFICALLY, then I'm open ears -- but "just sounds dangerous" really doesn't sway me and I think it'd be a shame to fill up the landfills with perfectly good compost material that we have quite an abundance of.

My World in Here said...

We have a small, outdoor compost pile. I raise hens and also have a ton of leaves that fall naturally into huge areas near the chicken coop. It's easy to rake up a pile, add pulled weeds, and yes, chicken poop mixed with cedar shavings that get cleaned out & turned about 3-4 times a year, depending on the weather and things like the an amonia-smell that tells us, "It's time to clean the coop!"
BTW-for people who think poop is harmful for gardening & such, they obviously haven't spent much time in the country. Manure is used ALL the time in crop production. In fact some genius came up with bagging it & selling it for profit! Imagine that! Serious gardeners add manure to their soil since plant production (edible & non-edible) depletes the soil.
However, since I feed my hens all kinds of leftover kitchen scraps as part of their supplemental diet, I do not add much else. The compost is in a part shady/part sunny area, and a little away from the house, so odor isn't a problem. (Especially since we have almost 100 hens!)lol
I know every thing my hens eat because it either came off my land or I fed it to them. Can you say that about the meat/eggs you consume, for sure?
I try to find ways to reduce our garbage all the time. We live in a rural area and choose to dispose of our own garbage, which means hauling it ourselves to dump, which means less is better because you don't have to go as often. There are also recycling dumpsters there for plastics, metal, yard scraps, etc. and it's $2.00 minimum to dispose of trash, but recycling is free.
Also, my hens LOVE worms, pill bugs, slugs, etc. so the more insects we attract, the better.
A small (lided) plastic bin inside the house sounds like a great start. Giving it to someone if you can't use it for your yard as fertilizer, shouldn't be too hard to do if you ask around. If you can't find a gardener, look for someone with a farm animal or petting zoo like pigs, goats, hens, etc.
Remember, the goal is finding new ways to look at things & habits, and that is what brings about change.

Kristen@TheFrugalGirl said...

For the "in limbo" stuff, during the wintertime I keep it all in a bucket out on my deck. No fruit flies are around when it's freezing outside.

In the summer, I keep a little container in the freezer and I throw scraps in there until it's full. Then one of us takes it out to the actual bin.

My compost has taken about a year to be ready to be used, but I know it's faster if you use the red wiggler worms. I have no worms in mine.

Grace40 said...

I love your blog and have just recently found it! Thanks for all the great ideas!
I love composting! My children love composting and I agree with most of what has been posted already. We don't put any meat, dairy (unless hard boiled egg shells) or anything rodents might like in our compost. But I do grab a bag of coffee grounds that Starbuck's sometimes will have out for free to add to mine.
It takes about a year, but in MN we are in a drought and we have been so grateful to put compost all around our veggie plants in the garden to help with keeping the water in the soil a bit longer.
We also have a "limbo" bin right outside our kitchen door....it's a kemps ice cream bucket. :)
All the best!
Grace

Jill said...

Keeping the pile balanced with green (grass/food scraps/landscape trimmings) versus brown (paper bags/dry leaves/hay) material will keep it smelling like good dirt and not garbage.
In response to the question of composting feces, animal or human, I referred to the Rodale Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening: "There are some organic materials to avoid or use only with caution when composting. Human and pet feces may carry disease organisms; meat scraps and fatty materials (dairy) break down very slowly and attract animals."
If you do compost feces, you could always contact your local agricultural extension office for a soil test prior to using the compost, just to be sure everything had composted safely. I have heard of people composting this matter safely, though have not done it myself.
A good book to read is "Compost This Book" - I don't recall the author.

So glad you are trying this. We have loved it for many years. The compost we get is amazing!

WilliamB said...

Aarrrgh! The post it took me 20+ min to write disappeared into the ether. I'll rewrite but not tonight.

Angela said...

I'm overwhelmed with the wealth of ideas and advice and information, not to mention support! Thank you all SO much- I already feel so much more confident about taking this on.

William B- I am SO sorry- that has happened to me before and is so frustrating. I really appreciate your support and experience.

Alea said...

You've already received a lot of advice, but I will just add that I put a thin layer of compost on my grass each spring. It replinishes lost nutrients (read greens it up fast)and it helps retain moisture, so your lawn does not dry out so fast. If I have some bare spots I throw seed down before I lay down the compost. Also I don't bag our grass clippings. We leave them where they fall because that also retains moisture.

Di Hickman said...

I started composting last October with a regular compost pile and recently got a worm bin. Have to say the worm bin is quicker. With just the two of us (both vegetarian) it fills up fairly quick with kitchen scraps. I do still have the other pile for garden waste but it takes forever to 'cook' esp here in So Cal with the hot temps right now it need constant watering. For me vermicomposting is better, I definitely recommend it!

Angela said...

Again, thanks for all your ideas and advice- Meg, I really appreciate your detailed descriptions, and I've looked at FruWiki's composting section.

Alea- We don't have a grass lawn- we live in So Cal where there's a drought so we have native plants and ground cover. But I'm sure some of our plants and flowers will like the compost.

Di-I think the bin I get from the city is a "worm bin." It's a plastic tub, basically. Maybe I'll add worms. I don't like the idea of the pile being out because of flies, etc. When you say vermicomposting, you mean worms, right? Thanks for coming by.

tammy said...

Angela I applaud your baby step composting ideas! I compost in a big coffee can. I toss in dried coffeegrounds,dried egg shells, tea bags, and veggie scraps. A few times a week, I take the can out back in the garden and bury the contents. This is a simplified way to compost and requires no special equipment or attention. It works great for us!

Angela said...

Hi Tammy! I'm glad you mentioned tea bags- I hadn't been thinking of those. I think we'll be doing almost what you're doing, except when I take out my scraps once or twice a week, I'll be throwing them in the bin instead of burying. Just have to decide about keeping scraps- I may use a container in the freezer like Frugal Girl- I like the idea.

Kristin said...

For our "in limbo" stuff I found a set of metal aluminum flour/sugar/tea type cannisters at Goodwill for $2. I use the biggest one and just leave it on the counter with the lid on. When it gets full, we take it out to the bin. I have never noticed a smell coming from it because we fill it every 3 days or so and the lid fits fairly snugly... When it comes back from being dumped out it just goes through the dishwasher and it's all clean again.

Angela said...

Kristin- I love that idea! When we throw it in the trash, it's in there for 3 or 4 days, so there shouldn't really be a problem just putting it in a container in the kitchen.

I'm going to look for something like that.

Amanda said...

I just started my compost bin this weekend too using Frugal Girl's method! All the tips on your site have been a huge help. :) I kept putting off making one because I felt like I would do something wrong and it would end up a disaster. But from what I have been reading it seems pretty hard to screw up. I have my fingers crossed!!

CT said...

I was absolutely petrified of composting, but I bought a huge bin from the DPW when I finally got a yard. Now I'm so obsessive I make my husband bring home his banana peels from lunch. It's not scary. Everything is going to break down sooner or later -- if you ever let food go bad in your fridge, you can certainly compost. I don't worry about the mix, I don't worry if I have a little bit of meat or cheese rinds in there (the bin is rodent-proof, so that's not a concern). In the winter, everything froze and piled up, but then things went quickly as soon as we had a warm spell. I keep the scraps on the kitchen counter in a plastic cookie container (about the size of a big ice cream container) and take it out every couple of days (if the weather is awful, I confess, I end up with a collection of containers to take out). We always have tea leaves on the loose, so I put some paper or newspaper down in a thin layer so that everything comes out easily. And that's it.

I'm really doing it to cut down on waste, so most of my finished compost is languishing in a pile in the yard, but so what. I love it!

Angela said...

Amanda- I'm so glad you could also use all these great tips I'm getting- good luck to you! I feel the same way- I think it's pretty hard to screw it up, especially since I'm using it mainly to throw produce scraps away... Thanks for coming by!

CT- I'm getting my bin from the Department of Sanitation tomorrow. Their website has a lot of info, and along with all the tips I've been given, I think I'm ready to go! And I think I've finally figured out a use for my Pillsbury doughboy cookie jar. I realize now it's silly to worry about keeping food scraps out in the kitchen for a day or two, since otherwise I would have thrown them in the trash. And we don't have to worry about any really cold weather here in So California! Thanks for commenting.

WilliamB said...

Meg et al: the problem with kitty litter is toxoplasmosis. Cats can have it (maybe it doesn't affect them?), soil can have it, and putting kitty litter in the soil makes it more likely that the soil will have it.

As with so many things, toxo usually isn't a problem for healthy people but the young, the old, the infirm, the diseased, and the pregnant are all at high risk from toxo.

It's also that you shouldn't use poop from carnivores (insectivores like chickens are OK) but I don't know why.

WilliamB said...

My goal is to recreate what I wrote before rather than giving you the slimmed down version. Not too hard for a compost enthusiast like myself. I can’t promise that you won’t regret it, though! (My goal isn't to see how long a post your system will take, although it does seem like it.)

PART THE FIRST: the really short version: mix equal volumes of produce scraps and shredded paper/leaves in a pile outside. Wait. When it more-or-less looks like dirt, use it.

PART THE SECOND: the slightly longer version.

1. Make your bin(s) Drill a lot of holes in the sides (mine are 1’ in diameter) of a Rubbermaid bin, 18 gal or bigger, cut out the bottom, and put it outside.

2. Make your interim container by putting a lidded 1-2 qt container on your counter. Put fruit & veggie scraps into it. Don’t add squash, cucumber, tomato or melon seeds (they grow too easily and take over your pile), meat or dairy. Expect to dump in on your pile every day or two.

3. Shred paper and/or old leaves.

4. When you dump your scraps, cover them with an equal volume of paper/leaves.

5. If the pile gets smelly, add more paper/leaves.

6. Once or twice a year, shovel the stuff from the first bin into the second one. If the stuff is stinky, mix in more paper/leaves while you’re at it.

7. When it looks pretty much like dirt, it’s ready to use.

(to be continued...)

WilliamB said...

PART THE THIRD: the explanation.

There are a couple of sources of confusion that I want to address. First, compost is both a noun and a verb. I’ll do my best to be clear - decomposing is the verb and compost is the noun. Second, the process of decomposition never ends, so when I use the word “finished” I mean that the stuff has decomposed enough to be usable. When is it decomposed enough to be usable? When it looks about like dirt.

Everybody neat and pretty? Now on with the show. /Micky Mouse voice.

The basic vocabulary of compost: green and brown, hot and cold. Greens are ingredients that are high in nitrogen. They include food scraps, grass clippings, manure. Anything that gets stinky and slimy as it gets older is (probably) a green. Browns are things that are high in carbon. They included dried leaves, shredded paper, straw. Anything that gets dry and crackly as it gets older is (probably) a brown. Some greens are greener (ie, more nitrogenous) than others, some browns are browner (ie, more carboniferous) than others.

You want about half greens, half browns by volume. If your pile gets slimy and stinky, add more browns. If it’s decomposing too slowly for you, add more greens. Meats, dairy, and eggs are all greens. You *can* add them - everything decomposes - but they take longer (meat in particular) and are more likely to attract critters. Other things you can put in the pile that you might not have thought of are corn husks and cobs, egg shells (they decompose faster if you let them dry and then crush them), used paper towels. Don’t add twigs or bones, both take years to break down, even in a hot pile.

A hot pile is one that has enough stuff and enough greens that decomposition happens fast enough to generate heat. You need about a cubic yard (3’x3’x3’) minimum to reach the critical mass. A hot pile can steam! It’ll reach 160F or more. Cold piles are ones that are too small and/or too many browns to generate heat. Note that the heat is internally generated. Winter’s cold can slow down decomposition, but sun and high outside temp don’t speed it up.

Decomposition is an ongoing process. If you build your pile all at once, the inside decomposes faster than the outside. If you build your pile as you go (ie, when you dump your scraps) the bottom is farther along than the top. The solution is turn the pile: mix it up again. That decomposition is an ongoing pile means that your as-you-go pile has both new stuff and finished compost. The solution is to have two piles if you can - one of older compost that is finishing quietly, one of new stuff that is in the initial burst of decomposition. FYI the smaller you chop things, the faster they decompose but even large chunks decompose eventually.

Location doesn’t matter much. Put your pile on ground (with or without vegetation) if you can, so good critters can migrate from the ground into the pile and any run-off will run-off into the ground. But a pile on concrete is better than no pile at all, although there will be run-off. You can build your bin out just about anything that will stand up straight. Old pallets are popular because they can be easy to get, are easy to attach (tie together with wire hangers or cable ties), and create a bin large enough for a hot pile. On the downside, they take up a lot of space and are usually not pretty. I use two Rubbermaid 18 gal bin. Make two of these and you can turn your pile by shoveling it from one bin to the other, which will also give you an older pile and a newer pile. Twofer!

Your pile *will* attract insects and bugs. Most of them are beneficial and you can’t get rid of the non-beneficial ones without killing the beneficials so don’t worry about it. Don’t add worms, either. If conditions are right the worms will show up eventually. If they aren’t, any worms you add will die or move away. Now a worm bin is something else entirely. It’s a box of bedding and worms (not the ones you find outside, either) to which you add scraps and from which you harvest worm casings.

Meg said...

@Williamb

Thanks -- that's what I suspected. I'm not too worried. Cats aren't very infectious except for shortly after they get it. And my cats are kept indoors. Plus, I'm not in a particular at risk category like the ones you described.

The way I figure, if they've had it, I probably already have it (from them or other cats) -- along with probably most ppl in the world. And if they haven't, they probably won't get it now. But if they do, I'd probably get it from them easier through direct contact.

I think the carnivores thing is because of Toxoplasmosis and other such things because certain things can be caught by eating raw meat. (In fact, I think I read somewhere that the French have a higher incidence of toxo. because they eat more raw meat.) I'm not sure how that works when your pets just eat commercial pet food but goodness knows what's in that stuff.

Angela said...

William B- Thanks a million for all your experience and knowledge, and detailed instructions. I'm going to do an update this week, but I started my bin yesterday and I'll see how it goes. I've opted not to buy worms, but let them find them if they can. I guess it will take longer, but at this point I'll wait and see.

I really appreciate your description of the "green" and "brown" and "hot" and "cold" composting terms. That is very helpful, and hopefully your advice, along with Meg's and all the other comments will inspire some more people to take up composting!

Thanks for taking the time.

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Mylena said...

Loving the blog Angela!

@WilliamB you're quite right inasmuch as toxoplasmosis is a concern with cat feces for a small segment of the population. That said, cats can only contract toxo and shed toxo in their feces once in their lives; once they've had it their immune system will wipe out any "new" encounters before the toxo has a chance to take hold in their digestive system.

Like Meg, I toss the cat and dog feces in my compost, mainly because I know my pets are parasite-free and well taken care of. I can't say the same of the stray cats, hedgehogs, mice, etc that visit my garden and leave their own contributions behind.

Every gardening seminar / composting event etc I've attended I've asked that very question... Why can't I put dog/cat feces in my compost? I've stumped every single master composter, gardening expert and even scientist with this question. "Because it can be dangerous!" has been the stock answer. "How so, what are the dangers?" Toxo was mentioned once, as was the only other downside I know of, being that your heap/bin can start to smell if the quantities are too great and shifts your ratio of ingredients.

Then again, the same can be said of a small mountain of grass clippings heaped on top of a bin.

My compost heats up a fair bit and I am left with lovely stuff I use all over my garden.

If I were squeamish, I'd keep the compost with pet waste in a dedicated bin and use it only on ornamentals. Problem solved.