Saturday, February 27, 2010

You Too Can Make Black Gold

As it says on the back of the truck belonging to the Rainbow Recyclers in New Haven, “Compost becomes the Earth.”  Put simply, composting is a way to recycle most of your kitchen scraps and yard debris into rich, black humus that will make your garden thrive. Composting occurs naturally whenever something once living falls to the ground and slowly decays, eventually becoming a source of  minerals and nutrients to feed new life.

In the last post you learned of the tons of compost we have generated in our backyard composting bin. Now I’ll divulge the simple ingredients and equipment you will need to make your own “Black Gold.” If you garden at all, your investment of little time and money for equipment will really pay off. Note the price for just one cubic foot of compost, bagged commercially under the Black Gold name.

What you will be doing in your backyard composting bin is accelerating and controlling the natural process. You will be layering your kitchen scraps and yard waste with other organic materials in such a way that decomposition happens quickly, generating enough heat to destroy pathogens and weed seeds that would otherwise not be destroyed.

Don’t panic. I promise this is not as complicated as it sounds.

The first piece of equipment you will need is a composting bin. My recommendation for urban and suburban dwellers is one with a top as well as sides, to discourage raccoons and rodents from helping themselves to your discards or making a nest in the nice, cozy pile. The model shown above is much like the one we purchased in 1988; ours is still good as new. Composting bins come in a wide range of types and prices. Ours falls into the average price category; I show a high-end model on the left. A handy guide, Home Composting Made Easy, can help you with your selection. If you are ambitious, you can even build your own system. Just a little googling will uncover numerous links to assist you.

Backyard composting is an aerobic process (requiring oxygen). You will need to turn your compost weekly to supply air to the microbes who will be doing the work of decomposition. A turning tool or "aerator" will be a great aid. We have one of these, too.

Skip the cute kitchen scrap container. A juice or milk carton kept in the fridge until it is full will work just fine.

You will also need to learn what you can and can’t put into your compost bin. The process for home composting is different from that of municipal composting; the temperatures generated in the process are lower. You have to be more careful about what materials you use. Most food scraps are OK, but NOT dairy, meat, fish, or bones, which decompose slowly and smell, attracting vermin. If you check the EPA’s list you will find that tea bags, coffee grounds, dryer lint, and hair are also on the good list. Other definite NOs include diseased plants, charcoal, and kitty litter. According to Home Composting Made Easy, manure from cudchewers (cows, sheep, llamas…), chickens, and rabbits is great, but you should NOT add any from cats or dogs, and under NO CIRCUMSTANCES should you ever add your own. The risk of pathogens is simply too great.

Now all that’s left is to get your compost started. There are numerous websites that explain the basics. But the aforementioned Home Composting Made Easy is a concise, inexpensive volume that contains all that you need to know in one handy place. It’s a bargain and is endorsed by a number of agricultural extension services. I purchased mine at a workshop at the Connecticut Agricultural Extension Service on what makes good dirt. For a mere $3.95, “Professor Rot” will take you through the process of making compost, step-by-step, from selecting the right kind of composting system for your yard to achieving the perfect balance in your materials. You need the right proportion of green material (fresher and higher in nitrogen, think lettuce leaves) to brown material (drier and higher in carbon, think sawdust). Professor Rot can guide you to achieving compost perfection. You really should buy this book.

At the conclusion of the guide, Mrs. Rot explains the brewing of “compost tea,” which involves steeping some of your excellent compost, filtering it, and then diluting it to become a nutrient-rich beverage for your plants.

If you follow the advice of the Rots (or a Composting 101 link), you will have have significantly reduced your household’s municipal waste stream while improving the quality of life in your yard and garden.

If you decide you want to take your composting expertise to a higher level, there are numerous books that can take you there. Teaming with Microbes looks promising.

Soon you’ll be able to tell all your friends, “Hey, I made that dirt!”

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