Composting: Good for us, good for the planet

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

It’s National Learn to Compost Day! What a perfect opportunity to share a video Chris did for Butlers Brand a few years back, as well as his blog about composting. He’s a passionate believer in the benefits of composting and believe me, we generate a lot of compostables here at A Butler’s Manor. Here he is to tell you all about it:

Composting is an easy, environmentally friendly way to process much of the waste the average household produces.  The end product of this process is an effective and nutrient-rich fertilized soil, great for garden beds or potted plants.

Composting requires two or three bins with a width and depth of roughly three feet each.  The bins must allow good airflow to the compost pile.  To accomplish this, you might construct the bins from boards, allowing a few inches of space between each, or use chicken wire, as we did, below.

 

3 bin composting center

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A successful pile consists of layers of ‘brown stuff’ and ‘green stuff.’  Brown stuff should consist of mostly dry materials such as leaves, dead plants, sawdust, and hay.  This layer acts as the fiber of the compost pile and is also high in carbon.

The active ingredient in a compost pile is the green stuff, which generates heat as it decomposes. Green stuff is rich in nitrogen, which aids the growth of natural bacteria that speeds the decomposition. Green stuff consists of mostly plant-based materials; almost anything that would normally be thrown out food-wise can be green stuff. For example, here at A Butler’s Manor we generally juice over 20 oranges a day and use nearly 5 dozen eggs per week, all great for compost. Eggshells add great nutrients to the mix, as do vegetable and fruit peelings and discarded cut flowers. Other things to add: Fireplace ashes. Coffee grounds. The paper filters you brewed the coffee in. Cardboard egg cartons (rip them into smaller pieces first). Paper towels. What NOT to add: Meat, bones, or waste from an animal that consumes meat, or any form of processed food, as this could introduce dangerous bacteria to the compost (and can attract critters such as raccoons and rats).

But what really starts the decomposition process, and adds a lot of heat to the pile are grass clippings. These layers should be mixed together by turning the pile manually with a pitchfork, allowing air into the mixture.

man using a picthfork to put compost on a vegetable bedDuring the spring, perhaps from the cleanup of the flower beds, or during the late fall you will have an excess of “brown” from all the leaves that are available. If you have space, pile this up next to the compost bins so it can be added as needed. (I rake the leaves onto the lawn and use my recycling mower to bag the chopped leaves, as it aids in the breakdown of these materials. If you don’t chop them up, they can just sit there and not decompose so again, mixing is essential.) Same with grass clippings. Don’t just dump the whole bag from the lawn onto the pile. Add it a little at a time and mix it with the old compost or newer brown materials.

During the summer, when the grass is really taking off, you may have a lot more of this green material. Don’t try to save this in piles unless it is well away from where people congregate, as once an old grass pile starts to decompose without any other brown stuff, it stinks! How to get round this: Do you go to a coffee shop or deli on a regular basis? Ask them to save you the coffee grounds and paper filters and be sure to sprinkle these into the mixture. Does your town or village collect spring cleanup debris in large paper sacks? Ask if you can take a few and keep the sacks next to your bins for your “brown” in the summer.

When putting together a compost pile, try to alternate ‘green and brown layers but mix them well. You never should see too much of one thing in a compost pile as it is the mixture and the mixing that works best.

Maintenance: Turning the pile every week is the best choice. I find it best to turn it every time I add a five-gallon bucket of Green from the kitchen. Once the first bin is full, I turn it into the second bin. The top layer may not be fully decomposed, but don’t worry, it goes to the bottom of the second bin and has additional time to break down. If I have Brown stuff available, I add that at the same time in order to keep a good mix.

Watering is needed only if you are using a lot of dry Brown or dry Green. The pile should stay moist but not saturated. If the mix looks dry or there is an extended period of no rain, add water, leave a hose sprinkler nozzle on it for a while and let it soak in down to the bottom. Don’t cover the pile, leave it open so rain can keep it moist.

The temperature of the pile is important and serves to gauge how well the elements are working to decompose the materials.  A compost pile should always have a temperature between the range of 140º F and 160º F.  A high temperature would indicate that the pile needs more Brown and needs to be turned, while a low temperature would indicate the pile needs more Green. As long as there is a good mixture of brown and green the compost will keep decomposing. If you have too much of one type, it will stop.

Your secret workforce: Worms work to consume and process much of the Green and convert it into nutrient-rich soil. You don’t have to add worms as they will find your pile, but you will help them by regularly turning the mix. If you don’t crush eggshells when you put them into the pile, wet compost will form in the shells, and very often these areas are where the worms congregate.

I hope this inspires you to try composting at home. The gardens at A Butler’s Manor love the compost that we generate!

–Chris

 

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