Plenty of people are gardening these days, and many are new gardeners participating in the coronavirus “victory garden” movement. Good quality compost can help create healthy produce without the need for fertilizers. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency noted in 2019 that “food scraps and yard waste together currently make up more than 28 percent of what we throw away and should be composted instead.” Composting reduces the volume of trash in landfills, where organic material from kitchens and yards releases methane, a greenhouse gas.
Compost piles should have “browns for carbon, greens for nitrogen, air for organisms and water for moisture,” says the EPA. “Greens” include vegetables, fruits, tea bags, hair, coffee grounds, fresh grass clippings and chicken or rabbit manure, to name a few. “Browns” include small twigs, used potting soil, rags, leaves, wood chips, newspaper, sawdust, eggshells or fireplace ashes. Many people struggle to find “browns” to add to their compost piles. Coffee chaff from urban coffee roasters is lightweight and usually available in cities. Leaves from trees in rural areas can be saved every autumn and used for browns in the following year.
A word of caution if you’re using fast food napkins, toilet paper, paper towels, newspaper and magazines. Many companies add chemicals that help their paper products stay durable or create vivid colors, but this won’t help our health when we use that compost for a vegetable garden. Cornell University explains that newspaper is safe to compost, as most are printed with water or soy-based inks, but avoid glossy inserts or colored inks which sometimes still contain heavy metals.
There are lots of things you can include in a compost pile, even old spices or expired beer, corncobs (although slow to decompose) or old flower bouquets. Go easy on adding onions or citrus, such as orange peels, because these can negatively affect the composting process and when used in excess may be harmful to earthworms. Cut orange peels up in small pieces to help them decompose faster.
Don’t include these things in your pile: metal, glass, dairy or meat products, fish, bones, weeds with seeds, pet waste or kitty litter, cooking grease, salad dressing, oils and fats (including peanut butter), sawdust from pressure-treated lumber, chemicals, any part of walnut trees, coal, treated wood or “firestarter” logs. Remove stickers from fruits and vegetables to prevent littering.
Try to balance green with brown ingredients to achieve an optimal pile. Cornell University scientists recommend a ratio for browns to greens (or carbon to nitrogen) of 30:1. However, this is dependent on the chemical makeup and weight of the material, because few items are 100 percent just carbon or nitrogen. For example, one handful of kitchen scraps can be combined with one handful of dried leaves instead of 30.
Another trick when starting a brand-new pile or bin is to add an initial layer of completely composted material from a robust pile. This kickstarts the composting process because the already composted layer has the biological components your new pile needs. Eventually, the compost should become light, fluffy and dark brown (almost black).
Composting is a bit like an art rather than an exact science, and there are many skills to learn not mentioned here. Don’t worry about having a perfect pile! The main reason why experts recommend having an exact ratio, size and temperature is for optimal (faster, less smelly) composting. If you don’t mind waiting longer, the compost pile will rot eventually.
Amanda Bancroft is a writer, artist, and naturalist living in an off-grid tiny house on Kessler Mountain. She and her husband Ryan blog about their adventures and offer tips to those wanting to make a difference at www.RipplesBlog.org.
NAN What’s Up on 05/24/2020