These days it seems folks all around me are taking bold strides to “green up” their everyday lives. Whether we’re motivated to reclaim our health from the abominable agriculture and healthcare industries, or take back our wealth from the robber barons of the big energy companies, all of us are awakening to the idea that it’s time we followed that sage bumper sticker advice and remember how to live simply so that we may simply live.
Composting is one of the simplest things that I’ve ever learned. As a designer of Earth friendly landscapes and organic gardens, part of my job is to help folks implement changes right outside their doors that positively impact the entire global ecosystem. I routinely testify that there is no greater teacher of natural methods then nature itself.
So what does nature tell us about compost?
In nature there is no waste. Any creature lucky enough to emerge from the muck is quickly turned back into muck upon death, at which point another creature feeds on the muck created by the first creature. Life, death, rebirth, I’m guessing you’ve all heard about this process. When we compost we pay direct homage to this ancient cycle, and our gardens display the rewards of this environmentally respectful approach. What I’m getting at here is that nature shows us that compost grows great plants. Compost has always been the only sustainable means of creating fertility in soil.
Okay so enough about why we should compost, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.
First of all, I’m through with black plastic compost bins. Frankly, I hate them. Ineffective, ugly, and misleading to folks, these bins are ridiculous. We already know that the act of composting at home is a way of copying nature. Ask yourself, when was the last time you found a black plastic compost bin on the prairie, or in the woods, or wetlands? Compost happens in nature completely unaided and unhindered by plastic bins. Instead all the parts of the trees, and plants grow up and then periodically or seasonally die off to fall loosely across an open area where the rain soaks the leaves, and the wind and animals stir the whole thing up. After a good sit on the floor of the forest or prairie, a dead leaf or fallen apple becomes soil. At home we copy this process, in an open air compost bin or compost pile we mix together our kitchen waste such as fruits and vegetables, coffee, egg shells, grains, and bread, with our yard waste such as leaves and grass cuttings.
This edition of The Seed is dedicated to the hundreds of folks who’ve asked me how they can make a functional, affordable, and aesthetically pleasing compost system at home. Giving Tree Gardens Russ Henry is proud to have partnered with another green thinker, Margaret Wilke to bring you two great gardeners thoughts on growing garden gold from garbage!
Garden How To : home composting made easy
When attempting to adapt open air composting to the urban environment a little experienced advice can be handy. I always describe the best urban composting system as the 4-Bin system that I learned from my friend Margaret Wilke. Simply make 4 bins that are at least 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep each. The bins should be made out of whatever re-usable construction materials you have around. I love to use chicken wire and stakes because they’re cheap and breathable. Make sure the sides of your bins allow for a lot of air flow, so if you make your bins out of wood leave a few inches of space between each board. Situate your bins in a location that is easily accessible so you don’t feel like you’re going for a hike each time you bring a bucket of kitchen scraps out.
If you are worried about ill-tempered neighbors or city inspectors, you could always plant raspberry bushes along the sides of your bins. That way the bins will be disguised and you’ll have a peace offering to share with any disgruntled passers by. Using your 4-bin system should look a little something like this:
Bin 1: This is a storage space for yard waste.
Bin 2: Whenever I’ve collected enough food waste in my kitchen scrap bucket I empty the bucket into Bin 2 and then I layer on a healthy dose of yard waste from Bin 1.
Bin 3: After Bin 2 is full, I move all of its contents into Bin 3.
Bin 4: After Bin 3 is full, I move all of its contents into Bin 4.
By the time you’ve layered and then moved your compostables from bin to bin a few times you’ve got yourself some real garden gold. Feed your new plantings plenty of this fine homemade magic and watch them grow healthy and bountiful. Give the entire garden a 2-inch layer of compost each spring in order to ensure a full season of growth.
Composting is not a science; it is an easy craft that anyone can master. The only other advice I can think of on the matter is to be flexible, adjust the materials and size of the bins to suit your needs. Don’t get hung up about your ratio of kitchen waste to yard waste, your yard’s a little piece of nature and there’s supposed to be way more leaves and grass cuttings then there are fruits and vegetables. Feel free to put some soil or already composted materials in with your bins, this can help speed up your composting process. Composting is easy, so don’t let your scraps go to waste anymore!
Margaret talks compost
Margaret stands beside the compost system that she’s been faithfully using for more then 20 years in the picture below. Composting is one of Margaret’s passions, and her wisdom rubs off on anyone who visits her gardens!
Composting is one of my passions. I think it is because it is a kind of alchemy. You can turn things that people normally throw away into GOLD! Well, not real gold, but something as valuable as gold to anyone who gardens. You would have to pay a lot of money to get the kind of enrichment for your soil that organic compost gives you, and my bet is it wouldn’t be as good, either for the garden or for the environment.
It all starts in the kitchen. We keep an old ice cream bucket with a lid handy in the kitchen sink. Everything that is plant based, that normally would go into the trash, winds up in the bucket instead. Even with just two of us these days, my husband and I, we often have a bucket or more of material to take out to the compost heap every day, especially in the summer. It makes us very aware of how much we are dependent on the products from the earth for our health and well being. Food comes from somewhere, and it’s not the grocery store! And plant material needs to go back into the garden to complete the God-given natural cycle that sustains life.
We compost as long as we can into the fall, and begin again in the spring as soon as there are any days above freezing. Actually, I should rephrase that. I compost as long as I can into the fall, and begin again in the spring as soon as there are any days above freezing. My husband just puts up with me.
Here’s what goes into the bucket from the kitchen:
All vegetable and fruit trimmings, skins, seeds, stems, leaves, etc.
Coffee grounds (very key because they have nitrogen that helps the compost “cook”)
Left over / day old / moldy bread products (no butter please!)
My family knows that Mom will have a fit if she finds a banana peel in the kitchen trashcan. Roses love bananas.
We add this kitchen mix to the compost pile daily and ALWAYS cover it with dry leaves or fresh green material such as garden trimmings and grass clippings (IF they are chemical free). It is amazing how fast those banana peels, potato skins, and broccoli stems break down and become completely unrecognizable! Eggshells take longer, so I generally try to break them up before putting them in the pile. If there hasn’t been rain for a while I occasionally water down the piles, but not very often. Once in a while I shovel some partially finished compost and/or garden soil over the top of everything to give it the microbes it needs to break down. That also ensures there are no odors from the pile for neighbors to complain about. Keeping the fresh additions from the kitchen COVERED is key to having an odor free pile. It keeps inquiring animals at bay as well. Also you won’t attract flies or bees when the fresh stuff is kept adequately covered.
Above, the compost process begins in earnest when kitchen scraps are mixed with yard waste in Bin # 1
A mix of green(kitchen waste) and brown (yard waste) materials is ideal. I use everything from the garden EXCEPT weeds with seeds. I have learned the hard way that weed seeds will make it through most backyard composting systems. These piles are not usually large enough to generate the high heat needed to kill weed seeds. I am also very careful about which spent flowers with seeds I put into my compost piles as well. Your garden will be entirely black-eyed susans, for example, or purple coneflowers if you put the flower heads with these seeds into your compost. I generally cut off the flower heads and then throw the stems and leaves into the compost. Otherwise I just pull up over-zealous plants when they’ve finished blooming and pile them in a dark corner under the evergreens in the back of the yard where they are out of sight. There they break down but don’t get enough light for the seeds to germinate.
Bins number 2 and 3 show us the various stages of waste becoming soil. Bin number 3 below is full of healthy happy compost just waiting to spread its organic fertile magic!
As for brown material, hay without seeds will work, but is expensive. I have sometimes used oat straw that has seeds in it, the kind used for Halloween decorations, particularly if someone gives it to me free. If I’m sure the pile will be completely composted, then I feel okay about adding it to the compost pile. The sprouts of oat seeds from the straw are easily identifiable and pull up readily if a few of them make it through the composting process. But, I wouldn’t want them all over the garden, so I don’t use oat straw as mulch.
Once a summer I do a major turning of the piles. This is when a strong husband comes in handy. But I have done it myself, it just takes a little longer, since I have to do it a bit at a time, not all at once as hubby prefers (“Let’s just get it over with!”)
Margaret’s compost system is the most functional home composting method that I’ve ever seen. Notice how the posts are all slotted which makes moving and scooping the pile very easy.
Making compost in Minnesota has the advantage of the freeze / thaw process that helps break down organic matter without any help from you at all. It takes about a full season to make really good compost. Once you have the cycle started you can easily keep it going and will be supplied with compost pretty much throughout the growing season.
I have three compost bins that my husband built for me at least 20 years ago. They are about 4 feet across and 5′ deep. They stand side by side with removable boards in the front of each bin, and also between the bins so that turning material from one bin to the next is not too difficult. I always keep fresh material separated from the 1/2 completed compost, and from the aged compost, so three bins are needed.
Once a bin is emptied by using the compost for potting-up spring plants or spreading it on the gardens, I turn the next most finished compost into it. This aerates the pile and gets it cooking. Then I turn the least finished compost into the just emptied bin and start a new pile. Composting fits naturally into the cycle of growing and life in the garden.
Try it you’ll like it!
From the kitchen to the garden and back to the kitchen, Margaret’s compost system is easy to build, fun to use, and it makes the best dirt around, just have a look at Margaret’s gardens to see for yourself!
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