June 08, 2006

Not yet the Compost Queen

Well, I finally did it. I cracked open the lid of my composter and started spreading. Admittedly, the term composter is a generous one. It's actually a green plastic garbage can. It was full to the gills and I even had stuff waiting to go in, so it was well past time I got this done.

Composting is one of the most simple and natural things in the world. You let organic matter - dead leaves, grass clippings, garden trimmings, vegetable scraps and the like - rot down and return to the soil, where a wonderfully complex web of microorganisms make the nutrients available to the plants again, leaving some indigestible fibres to permanently improve the structure of the soil. To my mind, one of the marvels of nature. And the whole process works wonderfully without any human intervention, at least in theory.

If I had a large yard with suitably obscure corners, I'd just build a small series of piles, turn them occasionally and let nature do its thing. But my yard is about 14' by 20' and there are no obscure corners. My challenge is to do the composting in a reasonably esthetic manner, without producing any unwanted smells. Unfortunately, those two goals tend to run in opposition to one another. If you encase your compostables, air can't get in at them, which makes them much more likely to stink. Unencased compostables are not high on the esthetics scale.

So I used my plastic garbage can, with a few tiny holes drilled in the sides to provide a bit of drainage. I thought that the occasional stir with the garden fork would be enough to keep things sufficiently aerated and I would have beautiful, crumbly compost come spring.


I am happy to report that my efforts were not an unmitigated disaster. Neither were they an unqualified success. The top layer of stuff was not rotted down, which I fully expected. I scooped it off and put it aside to go back in. The next layer was semi-rotted and not something I planned on spreading in an ornamental bed. So it too was put aside. We are down past the halfway mark now and what is left is definitely black, but not exactly sweet smelling and there are still the occasional chunks that are recognizable. But it's usable, so I use it. The last couple of inches were, well, rank. They were down below the level of my pitiful drainage holes and were unpleasantly reminiscent of swamp water.

Lessons learned?

#1 - When all you have is one garbage can composter, you want to facilitate breakdown as much as possible. From now on, I am going to shred any newspapers I put in. (I don't have any ready supply of leaves year-round, unless I want a permanent stockpile in garbage bags. Not esthetically acceptable. So I use newspaper to balance out all those garden and veggie trimmings.) Things like thick stems didn't break down very much - not a surprise - but if they resist decomposition too long, I'll have to stop putting them in.

#2 - I need better drainage. This was taken care of on the spot. I enlisted the help of my son, David, who took our largest drill bit and put four holes on the bottom of the garbage can and about 16 more scattered randomly on the sides, to permit a little more air to get in. These were a lot bigger than the pinholes that were in there before.

#3 - The weight of the incoming compostables will not crush eggshells into nice, fine little bits. If I want them crushed, I'll have to do it before I put them in.

#4 - I am definitely going to have to turn the darn thing more often. *sigh*

#5 - Cotton socks and rags don't break down very well in these conditions. I might as well forget it.

#6 - It's worth trying again. Just a little smarter this time.

#7 - Cracking open your composter is best done on a drizzly day when the neighbours aren't out to smell it. Today was such a day. :o)


Anthony said...

Congratulations on your first compost of the season. A garbage can make a great composter. Next time you have your son's help, have him secure the lid with bungee cords or even duct tape. Then roll the can around your yard (perhaps wait for another rainy day so not to scare the neighbors). Now your garbage can is a homemade compost tumbler and the contents will turn to compost much quicker.

And welcome to Garden Voices.

Janet said...

Thanks, Anthony. Duct tape I can probably even pull off on my own!

Frances said...

Well, Janet, you've given me an idea for composting. We moved into a smaller house with a smaller yard and a garbage can would be just the right size. I'm glad to learn from your first trial also.

Anonymous said...

I have recently read that newspaper ink contains BPA. And since we are all trying to get away from that chemical, you may not want to use newsprint in your compost pile.

Janet Ursel said...

Good point. Although quite a few newspapers now use organic inks, so it's worth checking with your local paper to find out what they use.

Meredith said...

I hope by now you have found out about composting worms! These guys are my best friends. You can order them by the pound (during warm seasons) from suppliers (look for "worm farms" or "composting worms" on the web), they usually come with instructions, and you can even keep them in the kitchen! I keep some inside, some in front, and some in back. They like all vegetable waste (kitchen or garden), shredded paper (the remnants of my bills go to worms, and thence to my garden), dryer lint (really!), fallen leaves (go a little easy) etc etc. Just don't give them anything proteinaceous (eggs, meat) or greasy-oily (olives or citrus peels). They will love you for melon rinds and lettuce ends. When you buy them from a reputable dealer, they will likely come with instructions, but you can find those on the web if they don't. I strongly encourage you to try using worms to help you compost (it's a lot faster, and they're good friends -- composting worms don't "run away").