by Jane Solomon
Last time I wrote about the importance of incorporating composting into daily life by setting up a system that works for you. In this column, I’ll cover outdoor materials as well as the necessary combination to make compost.
All yard waste is compostable and it all has value.
What you use depends on what you have growing and how much yard work you do yourself. I could never compost the volume of plant waste our garden produces. Fortunately, my landscaping company composts everything they haul so none goes to landfill. I end up using the waste I have from whatever gardening project I’m working on myself. What’s important is that you need a combination of dry brown and moist green materials.
This is the right place to explain that there are two ways to make compost. “Hot” composting is when you mix a large amount of green and brown materials together at one time and in the proper ratio, adding no new materials thereafter. Done properly, a hot compost pile will reach internal temperatures as high as 150 degrees, killing seeds and diseases in the process. You get compost quickly.
The downside is that it requires separate stockpiles of brown and green materials (not to mention buckets of yucky food scraps) waiting until you have enough to “cook” a batch. You also need to get the ratio of brown to green, (called the Carbon/Nitrogen ratio), just right. While it’s cooking, it also needs to be turned and the moisture monitored. For most people, including me, it’s a finicky process and too much work.
I practice the most common method, called “cold” composting. The beauty of this is that you add materials as you go so it’s much more practical. When you’ve got waste you toss it onto the pile. A cold pile does warm up, but not sufficiently to kill off seeds and diseases, so be mindful of flowering weeds or any diseased plants and throw them away. Every week or two, I turn the pile with a fork. This definitely speeds up the process, but even if you don’t, composting will happen on its own.
Cold composting is also much less fussy about the Carbon/Nitrogen (C/N) ratio, but you still need to be aware of what you’re adding to keep it in balance. To clarify, both brown and green are predominately carbon with some nitrogen. Green simply has a much higher percentage of nitrogen. The C/N ratio then is really about getting enough – but not too much – nitrogen.
There’s a simple rule of thumb for the proportion of brown to green you should use when making compost. Unfortunately no one quite agrees on what it is! Some say brown to green should be 3:1; others say 2:1 and still others insist on 1:1. This is one of those confusing deterrents that could make you throw in the towel. Fear not.
The confusion comes from different assumptions, usually about measuring brown. Here’s a simple example: Compare a bucket of vegetable scraps with a bucket of grass clippings. Green materials tend to be reasonably similar. Now compare a bucket of dried pine needles with a bucket of whole oak leaves. There’s a lot more mass in the bucket of pine needles. It’s not surprising that one sees different rules of thumb. That said, most brown materials are lightweight with a lot of air space. Because of this, it’s best to plan on two or three parts brown for one part green.
Ultimately, let your compost pile be your guide. It will tell you what it needs when you turn the pile with a fork. If it’s wet, clumpy, slimy or smelly, you’ve got too much green. Conversely, too much brown and your pile will look dry and lifeless. Either way, mix in more of the missing material and you’ll be back on track. You should similarly check for moisture. If it’s been raining a lot and the pile is soggy, toss a tarp over it for a while. If there’s a dry spell, turn on the hose and add some water. You want to keep it moist, like a wrungout sponge.
I have yet to reveal Composting Challenge #2, so here it is: brown materials are scarce. During the active gardening months, green is everywhere, but look at any list of good brown sources and you’ll find things like nutshells, pine needles and straw. I dump eight gallons of food scraps alone each week; I couldn’t begin to match that in nutshells, pine needles and straw!
Fortunately in Forest Hills, we have the best brown there is – abundant fall leaves. The challenge is that they all come down at the end of the season. What do we use from April through September? Come up with a plan to stockpile leaves and you’ll be on composting Easy Street.
My solution to stockpiling has been shredding. On a dry fall day, I rake up huge piles and shred enough to fill two retired supercans. I use my stockpile to supply brown to two different compost piles and I usually only go through one supercan a year. I keep the leaves near the compost bins and when I toss in a bucket of food scraps or garden trimmings, they’re right there and ready to go.
My tool for shredding has been the Flowtron LeafEater, which is basically a weedwhacker at the base of a large funnel. It’s an inexpensive tool and for what it is, I’ve gotten a lot of life out it. I thought I was on composting Easy Street.
I said at the outset that I’m no expert, but lucky for me my friend Susan is. We spent Labor Day weekend together and talked a lot about compost. I learned a thing or two. Here’s an excerpt.
“Why do you shred your leaves?” she asked, puzzled.
“So I have enough and they break down easily?” I asked, suddenly filled with self doubt.
“You just told me you keep a two-year supply so you have more than you need. And whole leaves are better because they provide essential air space in the pile,” she replied.
“Oh…” I said. Wow, no shredding? Easy Street just got a whole lot easier. This year I’m putting my faith in my friend and smashing whole dry leaves down into my supercans.
Whole leaves still require more space than shredded and if you have limited space, shredding will help. Most people accomplish this by going over piled leaves with a lawn mower. They can be stored in trash bags and stacked in the back of the garage or hung from the rafters. Or keep them behind a shrub in a corner of the garden. Whatever way you can store them, those fall leaves are the answer to having sufficient brown throughout the year. Unless of course you eat a LOT of nuts!
My friend, Susan Eisendrath, is a Montgomery County Master Gardner and Master Composter. More importantly, she grows amazing vegetables. She kindly shared a Power Point presentation she created for a talk that’s a one-stop composting reference. It also contains links to some other great composting websites.
Coming soon in Part 3: The final challenge along with other neat tricks I learned from Susan.