by Jane Solomon
I love composting. It creates rich food for my soil, it makes me feel good, and I’m thrilled how it has reduced our household trash. Composting is easy and there’s no reason everyone with a bit of outdoor space can’t do it.
This is the first in a three-part series sharing my composting experience. It’s not comprehensive and I’m no expert. You can get a soup-to-nuts (to humus!) education online – that’s not my goal.
The older I get, the more essential it is to forego the perfect in favor of the good because life is just too short. The pursuit of perfect compost is sufficiently complex to be a real deterrent to making any compost. My goal therefore is to convince you to try making good compost because it’s so infinitely superior to making no compost at all. I’ve divided the series to address what I’ve dubbed the Three Major Challenges. I identified these challenges by tripping over them – sometimes repeatedly.
To begin, stop thinking like a gardener and channel your inner Sanitation Engineer, because composting is part of waste management. We gardeners get to use the lovely end product but we don’t get there alone. I’m the only gardener in the family but we all take part in composting – it’s the first filter of our waste disposal. If it doesn’t go into the compost bin we consider whether it’s recyclable. Only when the answer to both questions is “no” does something go in the trash.
To accept composting as a fundamental part of your daily life, just like trash and recycling, is Major Challenge #1. When you think of it this way, you soon understand that success relies on having a system in place that incorporates basic information, roles and responsibilities and the right physical setup.
Setting up a convenient system for both collecting materials and making the compost is essential. Cumbersome schemes will fall by the wayside as fast as a gym membership. To demonstrate, I’ll use the example of kitchen scraps. You don’t have to compost kitchen waste, but it’s a rich source of materials, it ranks high on the “feel good” scale, and it’s such a waste to send to landfill.
The setup is key because it’s in your kitchen and you don’t want a stinky mess. You’ll want a location close to where you prepare food and it should be at least as convenient as the trash can. You’ll also need a covered container to avoid smells and fruit flies and the container should be the right size for you. Too big and it will be cumbersome and smelly by the time it’s full. Too small and you’ll constantly need to empty it.
I planned for compost collection when we renovated our house. We have a pull-out trash drawer below our food prep counter. In it, I had the carpenter create two bins, a big one for compost and a small one for trash.
Because they’re equally convenient, laziness is never a factor and my kids get it right. Our bin holds four gallons, and it fills up at least twice a week. Four gallons may seem like a lot, but my composting area is a long walk outside, and you’ll probably be surprised at how quickly scraps collect. If yours is close to your kitchen door, it’s easy to empty a smaller bin more often.
We also keep a counter-top bucket next to the sink where we clear the dishes.
I just bought this recently, prompted by having our boys do more kitchen work. When they realized they had to walk 20 feet to the compost bin to dump food scraps (our kitchen used to be the garage and it’s very large), their withering looks said it all – we had a flaw in our setup. (Teenagers are occasionally right.) A quick trip to Amazon and I solved the problem.
Once you have a bin, everyone needs to learn what goes in and what doesn’t. You’ll find different do’s and don’ts depending what website you read and personal choice. Some say no bread, citrus or cooked food, others say throw it all in (I do). You’ll learn with experience what materials are slow to break down and may choose to exclude them. Eggshells are surprisingly tough so I crush them first. Corn cobs are slow and take up lots of room in my bin so I choose to throw them away.
The biggest pain of all is peeling off the little white labels that are stuck to produce; every one you miss you’ll find shiny and new in your finished compost.
It takes some study of how you work in your kitchen to figure out the right components and configuration, but once they’re in place, using them will become second nature. This will be equally true in setting yourself up outside, which is where the majority of your compostable materials will come from and where you’ll be making the compost itself.
Next time, I’ll cover outdoor materials, mixing them to make compost, and address Major Challenge #2.