Saturday, December 5, 2020

Composting: Turn Your Food Scraps into Nutritious Black Gold

 “The ground's generosity takes in our compost and grows beauty! Try to be more like the ground.” - Rumi

Fresh Compost Added to Garlic Patch
Fresh Compost Added to Garlic Patch

Composting is key to a healthy garden, there are absolutely no if's, and's, or but's about it.  If you want a healthy garden, you need to be composting, that is a plain and simple fact.  Composting is the simple act of taking food scraps, letting it break down and be turned back into highly nutritious soil, which you then add to your existing ground.  This allows you to give back to the ground so you are not always taking from it.  I always like to compare this to a bank account, if you do nothing but withdraw from your bank account and you're not contributing to it at all, well one day this bank account will be empty and you will have nothing, absolutely nothing.  If you are growing anything in your soil, you need to be giving back to it so the ground will continue to give to you in the future.  Otherwise you'll be left with a barren wasteland that has given all it has to give and is basically dead due to your greedy ignorance.  So lets avoid this, shall we?!

Composting seems to be a very scary subject for the vast majority of people.  Whenever I ask somebody about composting or bring it up in conversation people generally look at me as if I'm talking about some old age, dark magic, alchemy that nobody should know about.  While it is basically a form of alchemy, it really isn't that complicated or hard to do if you know how to do it right.  Which is exactly what I'm going to do here, teach you how in the world to compost properly!!!

Before we dig into the nuts and bolts of how to compost, there are a few things to keep in mind here:

1) This is for a traditional compost pile and this is not the new-age composting experiment that I've been doing in 2020 and have been teasing on this blog for quite a while.  The next post is going to be all about the new-age composting experiment so you don't have much longer to wait.  As I've said before it is guaranteed to be a let-down of a post by how much I have hyped it up, but I think it's exciting.  It's similar to a traditional compost pile but there are key differences that make a world of difference.  It's key to know and understand how a traditional compost pile works first before you start tweaking it.

2) I am not a biologist, micro-biologist, or anything of that nature.  I have an extremely loose understanding (as you will soon find out) about the science behind composting.  All of my knowledge is from trial and error, professor google, and some very unofficial and unscientific experiments.  I very quickly learned how to properly compost but as far as the actual science behind it, I'm not the one you want to talk to about that.  I am hoping to learn more about that in the future though via some good ol' fashion books!

3) This is assuming you are growing your vegetables straight in the ground and not in raised beds that already have lots of dirt / planting soil / compost added to them.  It is possible to have too much of a good thing and if you add more compost to an already compost / nutrient rich pile of dirt, you might get into a situation to where you have too many nutrients and your plants may suffer.  Soil testing can give you a good idea where your soil is at.  If you are planting in ground that used to be grass, I can almost guarantee you it is nutrient deficient and it will be very very hard to put too much compost on it.

Got the ground rules down and your expectations set low?!  Here we go...

How to Make a Traditional Compost Pile:

Step 1:  Dig two holes in the ground (after making sure your utilities are marked and you're not going to hit any utility lines).  You want these to be as deep as you can make them and as wide as your space allows.  Mine started being about 2 feet deep and 3 feet wide, they have naturally grown to be deeper and wider now.

Step 2: Put an empty bucket in your kitchen for food scraps.  This does not need to be a fancy bucket, but it should be airtight with a lid.  It also does not need to be overly large, you're going to be emptying it fairly regularly.

Step 3:  Collect food scraps and add to said bucket - VEGGIES ONLY, NO MEAT OR FISH - You don't want your compost and/or ground getting contaminated with E-coli, salmonella (mmm salmon), or any other weird and not so great disease / bacteria.  I've read time and time again that eggshells are okay to add to compost but I still avoid them like the plague and I generally don't add them to the compost (a few have made it in there from time to time though and I'm still alive).  You take any vegetable food scraps you have and you add them in a bucket in your kitchen.  Cook a meal with vegetables?  Take the veggie scraps and immediately put them in the bucket!

Step 4:  Empty this bucket several times a week into the first empty hole in the ground that you dug.  The more you empty this bucket, the less it will smell, emptying daily is probably the most ideal but trust me, you're not going to empty it every day.

Step 5: Each time you empty the bucket, you add a layer of dried brown plant material on top of it, this can be leaves, twigs, hay, straw, whatever you can conjure that is organic, brown material.  You are making a compost lasagna.  You're adding a layer of green material (food scraps) followed by a layer of brown material (basically dried out organic matter) until your compost pile is full!

Step 6:  Make sure these are thin layers, not thick.  Each time I empty a bucket, I instantly add a layer of brown material on top, you want these layers to be able to mingle together.  Plus I like to think that having the food scraps covered make them less noticeable to any wildlife critters that may be in the area.  

Step 7: Once your first hole in the ground is full (fill up one hole first before moving onto the next), be sure you ended it with a layer of brown material or you'll attract a lot more wild animals then you'd like.  Then start filling the second hole.

Step 8:  Start turning the now full compost pile.  You take a pitchfork or shovel or whatever you have, and you mix the contents of the now full compost pile every few days.  A traditional compost pile needs oxygen to break everything down, so the more turning the merrier and the faster it will break down.  If you're able to turn it every day then I will be extremely impressed.  I'm lucky if I turn my compost piles once a week (and I'm still able to successfully make compost with a traditional compost pile), every few days is ideal, set your goal for that.  Turning compost piles is harder than it sounds and it's not necessarily that fun.

Step 9:  Don't add new material to your now full compost pile, add new food scraps and organic matter to the second hole in the ground that you dug.  That's why I had you dig two holes after-all!  You keep turning the full compost pile while it breaks down into black gold while you start building up your second pile.

Step 10: Once your full compost pile looks like dirt again, you add it back to your garden and BOOM, you have successfully made compost and you are now adding back to the soil so you can keep growing on it until the end of time!!!  In a perfect world, by the time your first compost pile has broken down completely, your second compost pile is full and you can seamlessly alternate between the two.  The world we live in is currently far from perfect, so don't expect that to happen, but you can strive for it!

Two Compost Piles
My two compost piles, one done and one far from done!

How long does this process take?

A traditional compost pile, once full, is going to take roughly 3 to 6 months to fully break down to where it looks like soil again.  The length of time it takes is dependent on how often you turn it (it needs oxygen to break down, so the more turning the better) along with what the season is.  Compost piles break down faster the hotter it is outside.  If it's summertime, your compost pile is going to be on the shorter end, if it's cold outside, it's going to take longer.  If this seems like a very long time to you then boy oh boy are you ever going to be excited to see my next post on this new-age composting experiment that I've been doing.

Why dig a hole in the ground?  Why not use one of those fancy, above ground composters that I see all of the cool people using?!

Keep in mind, I'm not a biologist or micro-biologist but I can tell you that a hole in the ground is far better than one of those fancy above ground composters that appears to be a hipster wave of innovation.  You need critters to break down your food scraps and to turn it back into soil.  When you dig a hole in the ground, this allows the worms, centipedes, millipedes, microbes, etc. to enter into your compost pile naturally, since they're already in the ground.  These critters then help break down your food scraps and turn it back into the soil.  With an above ground composter, there isn't any way those critters can be in your compost unless you add them manually, and who wants to do that?  Plus, digging a hole in the ground is much cheaper than buying an above ground composter that isn't necessary, enough said, just dig a few damn holes in the ground already (no hitting utility lines though, get those marked first).

Where do I get this brown organic matter that you speak of if I don't have any?

You should start growing sunflowers, then you'll have loads of it each year from the sunflower stocks.  Otherwise you'll want to check with local farms and get some hay or straw there.  I've read a lot of conflicting articles about using hay vs. straw in composting and the amount of weed seeds that may wind up in your compost, etc.  I think this really comes down to finding a farm that you like and want to support that is willing to sell you a few bales of hay or straw, etc.  Both of which have a high likelihood of being contaminated with weed seeds depending on the source.  Conversely both have a high likelihood of being perfectly fine and not adding much of anything negative to your compost if they're grown, harvested, and stored properly.  When I was buying hay (haven't bought for a while due to the mass amounts of sunflower stocks that I have), the farm I was buying from was fantastic, I loved visiting and as far as I could tell they were doing right by me, themselves, and the environment to the fullest extent possible.  Find a local farm in your area that you like, want to support, and buy from them.

What about the smell???

Composting when done correctly, won't have much of an odor to it.  If you're not turning it enough, it may start smelling.  If you haven't added enough dried brown material to your compost, it may start getting overly wet and as a result will start smelling, if this happens, mix in more brown material.  If you notice that your compost is mostly brown material and isn't breaking down too much, add more food scraps to it.  A 50/50  ratio of both is what you're going for and you have to adapt and adjust as needed as you go.

What about the chemical fertilizers at the store?  Why not just use those instead instead of compost?

Before I launch into a short rant here, it's important to point out that the original idea behind chemical fertilizers was actually a fantastic idea and quite an innovation for its time.  The whole point was to improve crop yields with minimal effort, which was certainly accomplished.  The problem with chemical fertilizers that nobody realized at the time, was that they were destroying the health of the soil and once people realized this was happening, that problem was ignored and brushed under the rug where everybody wants it to stay (money and greed rule everything in our society after all).  Chemical fertilizers are fast-release fertilizers.  Which sounds okay until you realize that what these do are they provide plants with all of the nutrients they need right away (fast-release) which tends to simultaneously kill anything and everything else in the soil (there's the problem).  Adding these fertilizers results in too many nutrients in the ground at the same time (since they're fast release), which puts the soil health way out of whack.  Then once it rains, the mass amounts of nutrients and chemicals leach into surrounding soils, rivers, environments, etc. where the amount of chemicals and nutrients cause further destruction.  Furthermore, chemical fertilizers make farmers (and you) reliant on these synthetic products instead of relying on mother natures natural process.  Once you start using these chemicals, you're dependent on them since they are literally killing everything in the ground (caused by the nutrient imbalance) which normally provide nutrients for your plants to grow and thrive.  Once this happens the only way to keep growing continuously on this land is to then keep using these chemical fertilizers and to keep buying them year after year.  This is not only bad for your pocket book, but the environment as a whole.  If you are using chemical fertilizers and you want to switch over to not using them and over to using compost you're going to have a period that is likely several years long where your ground is not very productive while you rebuild the soil health and build up the natural environment again instead of relying on the chemicals.  Soil health can be destroyed in a single day and once destroyed it can take quite a few years to build it back up again.  Do you see the problem yet?

So why even go down that road?  You can just not use these chemical fertilizers at all in the first place!  Use compost instead to add nutrients back into the ground to feed your soil. This also adds microbes back to the soil (and feeds existing microbes) which then feed your plants and they form a symbiotic relationship.  This then allows you to grow vegetables and plants in your soil indefinitely, as long as you keep composting and adding back to the soil!  That's a win-win for you, your family, your neighbors, AND the environment while keeping money away from greedy corporations who don't give a rats ass about your pocket book, health or the environment.  The mighty dollar rules all in their eyes, so why not do your part to take that power away from them?

Compost in Bucket
Fresh compost in bucket ready to be spread out

Big Worm
Big worm found in the compost

Important Note:  There are many ways to compost, just type "How to Compost" in Professor Google or YouTube and you will be bombarded with thousands of ideas.  My goal in this article is to keep it as simple as possible and to outline my tried and true traditional composting method.  Within this method there are a lot of things that can be tweaked but I simplified it within this post as much as possible to try and make it as clear cut and easy to understand as possible.  For example, when filling your compost pile, you don't need to wait for the pile to be full before turning it, you can start turning it as soon as you add food scraps and brown material to it.  It will actually break down faster if you do this, but it makes this process more complicated and also makes it harder to keep track of what you last did in the pile.  For simplicity's sake and for beginning composters it's easier for everyone to say to wait until the compost pile is full before you start turning it.

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