July 13, 2010

Baby Steps Challenge update: composting

The baby steps challenge I set for myself a year ago last July was to start composting. It had become more necessary when we started receiving a CSA delivery and there were a lot more food scraps.

I'm happy to report that this challenge has become such a habit that I can't imagine throwing things like potato peels, tea bags, or eggshells in the trash anymore. I've even managed to get my husband to go along with the program most of the time, although he still sometimes gets confused about what can be composted. He found a container that we put right outside the back door to throw scraps on their way to the bin, which is very helpful. And it took me almost a year, but I finally put the Pillsbury doughboy to rest (sold for $5!) and purchased a beautiful crock on ebay that sits on the counter.

One of the unintentional byproducts of composting that I love is that we're producing much less trash, and it's much less smelly. My husband likes this too, since he's now only taking the trash out to the curb once every three weeks or so. It's hard to imagine we ever took it out nearly every week. We used to have to plan who would take it out for us if we were out of town, what a waste of effort.

So I give myself high marks for tackling something that initially seemed very foreign to me, not to mention having a high "ick" factor (worms), and making it a habit. And if you're thinking about composting, if I can do it, so can you.

However, having done so well with throwing all that stuff in bins, I've now got two bins the size of the one in the picture and one twice that size filled to the brim with various stages of compost. I didn't do as well with turning it, and in fact hardly ever did it. So now I'm not sure what's the best way to go about turning this into compost that can actually be used. And I'm not a big gardener, so I don't know when/if I'll use it, but I can give it away.

Incidentally, I didn't need to buy any worms. They did indeed find their way into my bins, even in the hard dry soil of Southern California.

I used this tutorial from The Frugal Girl to get started. If you're ready to start composting, I encourage you to read it and you'll see how easy it is to save food scraps from the landfill and create your own compost to grow plants and flowers. All you need is a container, a drill, and about fifteen minutes of your time.

Composting experts, I still have a few questions. How do you know when you have the right combination of green and brown materials? I think I might have used too many leaves in an effort to make sure the food didn't smell or attract bugs, and the little bit I tried to use seemed too dry. But maybe that was because I didn't turn it enough. How often do you turn it, and if it hasn't been turned for many months, is it too late to start? Can you ruin compost? Please leave your thoughts in the Comments section.

Do you compost? Give us your best tips! Thanks again to all my readers who helped me through the process last summer with your excellent advice. Check out my original post on the subject and this update to read all the helpful user comments.

11 comments:

Kate Sommers said...

Since you're already composting and have the worms you might want to look into how to make worm castings. They sell for $75 a bucket here in Hawaii. Worm poop makes great soil and the farmers love it.

Kaylen said...

I have 4 composters (I know, a lot) outside plus a giant worm bin in the basement that I mostly use in the winter, but I feed it enough to maintain it through the summer. (Between a vegetarian household and a garden, we produce a lot of compostables.)

A frugal tip: If you know anyone with a rain barrel that split (which happens if there's water in it which freezes - which it occurs to me only happens in cold places, but it's common here) you can turn it into a composter by cutting off the bottom and top, then using the bottom as a lid. (Drainage/aeration holes are a good idea, too.)

To finish off the compost, in late summer or fall I tend to consolidate the compost down to a bin or 2 (which does some mixing) then stop using those bins to let them break down. (This obviously only works if you have 2 or more composters.) When it came time to use the compost, I used to just pick out any uncomposted bits and toss them back into the other composter, but I'm planning on making a sifter out of an old frame, some hardware cloth, and staples. We'll see how it goes!

Alison said...

First I'd like to say I've really been enjoying reading this blog. I'm looking into alternative ways of living and it is interesting to read the ideas on here.

Second, I don't turn my compost at all. I don't follow any specific rules about the ratio of dry/wet stuff but just put in whatever I can. My compost bin is a black purpose-built affair which sits directly in sunshine (when we have it - seems to be missing today)which does mean it hots up nicely. Despite my neglect it seems to be working. I used my first lot of compost on my new vegetable beds this year and I've been amazed at how well the veggies have grown. I did worry that the compost hadn't rotted down properly because there was small bits of fabric, eggshell, etc. However, I was assured by a self-sufficiency expert that this is perfectly normal, does no harm but just looks a bit unsightly.

Issa said...

But maybe that was because I didn't turn it enough. How often do you turn it, and if it hasn't been turned for many months, is it too late to start?

You can't ruin compost. Eventually, it will do its thing, regardless of what you do. I think more brown is better than more green.

If your compost is too wet, you might get maggots (which don't hurt it, but ew!), and you'll want to add in more brown. If it's too dry, you could consider adding some water, but I'd say just leave it. I have open bins, and the "right" combination for me is more on the brown side, where it has a pleasant earthy smell and pests aren't attracted to it.

Don't worry too much about the turning. Turning helps speed things along, but it'll eventually get there either way. It's never too late to start. A good turning will be helpful, even if it's rare.

Gus, Cambridge UK said...

Hi there, Gus from UK here. I will read this thread with interest as I have just acquired an 'Alotment' in my home town, to be able to grow vegetables for our own use - and likely the rest of the family. Not sure if Alotment is a term used in US, but basically its a decent plot of land owned by the local council, that you can pay just £25 a year for, and you put your own shed, greenhouse, water butt etc and use to grow vegetables, tomatoes, peppers etc. So need to start preparing the land and a dual or triple compost areas seems to be recommended. Tips on getting started, what to build the bins out of, how big etc. would be most useful. I'll let you know how we get on with the vegetable crop later this year and into next year

Anonymous said...

I put in a victory garden this year.And I started composting this year too.Just about everything I needed to know I found at aboutfrugal.com.They can teach you how to make a compost bin out of a trash can.I had so much compost (big family) that I built a spinner out of an old barrel we had.It makes the turning part so much easier.If you choose to turn or not,it does make it break down faster.I spin /turn mine once a week usually on Saturday.Hope this helps......Dena

those tricks said...

Great job, Ang!
When I have outdoor space again, I want to try composting.
The less waste is great, but I'm VERY interested in the non-smelly trash factor.

Katrina said...

There are a lot of books out there about composting, some of them are very complicated (I think the authors must have had way to much time on their hands and got way too involved in the whole process) and some of them are very basic and spell it out very easily how to put a compost pile together and how to get the balance right. Have just read a great Aussie one by Tim Marshall - Composting - the ultimate organic guide to recycling your garden

KeRobinson said...

Oh, I agree w/ the above poster who doesn't turn! I have one of those black domed types that sit on the ground w/ a door at the bottom to scoop out and put in on top/under lid and a barrel shaped one w/ a crank...I 4get to turn... But they still compost!
New favorite simple way though is to use an old blender 4 the chunks (or not) and just dump it on and around the plants, Away from the house entry...yea, there will be knats and other insects, but the lizards and frogs appreciate that along w/ the birds if there should be any wormy things! Might as well feed everybody :)
I also use a 7gal planter and layer w/ dirt/scraps/potting soil..then plant a veggie in it nxt yr.

WilliamB said...

Wa-a-ay behind the curve here, but weighing in nonetheless. Here's my recommendation - stage your bins. This system creates a continuous feed system for the price of shoveling twice a year.

#1. New Bin. Have one bin for fresh inputs. This should be yoru largest bin. When that's full, shovel that stuff into...

#2. Intermediate Bin. As you shovel stuff into this bin, you can see if it's really wet or smelly. If it is, add some browns (I use shredded paper) as you go. This doesn't need to be a big as your New Bin. When this is full, or will be full when you put the next batch of "new" in, you're ready to create...

#3. Ready To Use Bin. Once you stuff has been composting long enough to have survived bin #1 and bin #2, it's probabably ready to use. You can get fancy and sieve your stuff as it goes into #3 (I use a milk crate, all I want to do is keep out really big pieces), or not. If you keep the bottom on this bin you'll be able to move it where you want to apply compost.

If you do this you'll have an easy to use compost system, that allows you to continually add new stuff, and only have to shovel it twice.

Anonymous said...

What do you do with extra compost? Barter it! I have been worm composting inside my downtown loft for three years(that's right - just feet from where our kids sleep - no smell!) I don't have a garden, but every couple of months I pack up my compost in yogurt containers, and the tea in wine bottles and give it to friends who do have gardens. They love it and eventually they share the fruits of their trees and gardens with me. A nice, unexpected benefit.