Composting: For the Village Idiot

So, I've had some requests (Tanis) for a composting tutorial (Tanis) so here it is (you're welcome Tanis). I jest, but truly I'm thrilled to do it, because as we all know, I'm a composting nerd. My SIL Amy makes cupcakes, my SIL Leanne travels the world, I compost. Okay, so maybe it's not that big a part of my life, but I'm pretty passionate about this topic none the less. I promise I won't blog about it again for awhile after today. Scouts honor.

Step 1: What kind of composting fits you best?

We have a community composting program in the county I live. My local friends are already composting, whether they want to or not. This is a bi-weekly service that picks up organic matter year round. It's cool because the facility is able to compost dairy and meat waste, two items you would never want to attempt composting on your own (vermon issues and decomposition bacteria's the home composter is untrained to deal with).
Yard composters have two main options: Closed Composting or Open Composting.

I do both. You can purchase a closed composter from your local garden nursery. Costco even has them for about $45 right now. These are usually plastic and bottomless containers that you bolt down into the earth. I purchase mine through the Strathcona county early one spring. It was just under $40. They usually come with a kitchen pail and an aerator (which is essential). The image above is of my own closed composter that I use at home. The benefits of this style of composter are: secure from animals, kitchen wastes and other material that may be ugly to look at can be hidden from view, it creates an environment that produces moisture, heat and nutrients (less work for you), and it usually decomposes more evenly.

Open composting is an extremely low cost way to begin composting. You simply need to create two or three pen like areas that can hold your composting material securely in your yard. This can be done using items you probably already have. Wood, bamboo, chicken wire, plastic netting, even old pallets when placed together make wonderful pens to fill with compost. Depending on your yard size and the amount of material produced where you live, an open composting system may just be too much for the average joe. If you have the space and the matter necessary to feed such a beast, open composting is extremely satisfying and I think it looks right at home in any garden (though I may bias).

I use one side to stockpile material and the other to start the composting process. I often feed my closed composter with this matter after I add new product. It really speeds up the decompositon process. It works fine on it's own those and down near the bottom of this pile I had wonderful rich black compost ready to use.
STEP 2: Fill 'er up

Spring and Autumn are incredibly satisfying times to begin composting. Your yard is usually full of all the materials that you require and their available in mass amounts: Shredded dry leaves, fresh glass clippings and green garden waste are usually all in abundant supply.

You will also start collecting organic material from your home to compost. There are wonderful counter pails and buckets. Lee Valley has some great stainless steel buckets with lids that look wonderful and pretty much every purchased bin comes with a kitchen catcher. I'm old school and simply gather all my goodies in a kitchen garbage bowl that I empty every other day or so. It works for me...because I see it. If it's hidden, I'm hooped. You can also purchase biodegradable composting bags to line your bowls and containers with...a must for clean up.

So what else do you need? You have your kitchen scaps and yard what you really need is some patience. Composting is not fast. Decomposition takes time folks. If you want to speed things are a few sure fired recipes to try to get you going:
  • 20 lbs of rabbit food (alfalfa pellets) one wheelbarrow full of each of the following: dry leaves, grass clippings and green garden waste.
  • 4 parts fresh grass clippings, 1 part sawdust, 1 part active compost
  • 3 parts fresh greass clippings, 1 part kitchen scraps, 1 part damp straw
Personally, I don't care so much about the speed of the pile. Although last year I created a comfort composting heap and added a bunch of rabbit pellets and it got nice and steamy. It was cool on a more scientific basis than anything else.

Step 4: Stir the pot

You're going to have lots of time on your hands as nature takes it's course. You must help the process along by stirring the pot. Maybe you just want to feed it and forget it. I still suggest that you poke around in your pile every now and then. Simply use the aerating tool that came with your device, a pitch fork or even a long spare piece of rebar will suffice. Move things around, pull and poke a few times each will help produce better break down and faster batches.

Step 5: You've waited 6 months +...time to harvest!

Not so quick! There are a few good practices that will help ensure your compost is safe. We are dealing with bacteria and bins that are teeming with fungi, so a few precautions are necessary.
  • When the compost is harvested, you should run it through some chicken wire or netting to ensure large chunks get tossed back into the composter.
  • Compost that is harvested needs to be rested, or cured before using. A wheelbarrow filled with harvested compost and then covered with a protective cover for a few weeks should work great.
  • The final test: fill a plastic ziploc bag with your cured compost for 24 hours, open the back and smell. It should smell wonderfully earthy. If it is giving off yucky aromas it's not stable and not ready to use.
  • Always wash vegetables grown in compost enriched soil extremely well before eating.

If I haven't scared you off yet, I hope this answers some of your questions on what to do and how to do it. Feel free to ask questions, if I don't know the answer...I know where to find them!

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