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How Your Old Carrot Peels and Apple Cores Can Make You Healthier and Be Kind to the Planet Too
You might think that throwing carrot peels and apple cores in the trash has no effect, as they will decompose anyway. But even natural plant matter will last for years when sealed in a plastic bag and thrown into a landfill.
As a great example of community responsibility, the city of Seattle, WA offers free compost bins to all residents. This keeps over 800 million pounds of trash out of your landfills! Not only can you help divert your own kitchen waste from landfill, but you can create rich, nutritious humus for your own garden, whether it’s an acre or an old wine barrel in your backyard.
WHY SHOULD I COMPOST?
o More than 21 million tons of food waste is generated in the US each year. If this were compounded, the greenhouse gases saved would be equivalent to taking more than 2 million cars off the road.
o You will add valuable nutrients back to the soil and your garden will be healthier and your vegetables will be more nutritious for you and your family.
o You will save money by not having to buy garden soil and mulching materials, and this will save energy to transport these products to your store and to your garden.
WHAT IS COMPOUND?
When organic materials such as leaves, plant food scraps, manure and yard waste decompose in a controlled environment (your compost bin), it creates rich, fertile humus that will improve and fertilize your garden soil.
Your plants are much healthier because:
o Nutrients are added
o Drainage is greatly improved if the soil has a lot of clay
or if your soil is sandy, compost helps it retain water
If your compost pile is fresh, worms and insects will find their way there and help turn your waste into food for your garden. But it helps to get the right conditions. Provide these cute creatures with enough air, water and food and they will be your garden’s best friends.
IS COMMERCIAL COMPOST THE SAME AS “HOME MADE”?
Homemade compost is better for microbes and nutrient diversity, but bagged compost provides organic matter and some microbes. Note that composted manure may be mostly water by weight.
If you have a large garden where the soil needs added nutrients, you may want to purchase inexpensive bags of composted manure or bulk compost from a local commercial composter, then add your own compost as needed.
If you are buying compost, note that there are no regulatory labeling requirements for bagged compost. Grade A composted sewage sludge is probably the safest, because it is the only type of compost that requires testing for heavy metals and pathogens before it is approved for sale to the public. Fattening manure is much more dangerous from a pathogen point of view, as no testing is required.
WHAT IF I DON’T HAVE ENOUGH SPACE?
Even if you only have a small apartment balcony or back porch, you can compost in a plastic container (about 18 gallons or more). Drill or punch holes an inch or two apart on all sides, in the bottom and in the lid. Place it inside another slightly larger, shallower container (under bed containers work well for this). Put a few rocks or bricks between the two so there is a space for air flow. Add your waste and shake the bin every other day. If you have room for two, you can add one for several months, then stop adding and start the second. Keep shaking it occasionally until it’s brown, crumbly, and earthy-smelling. You can use this compost for small balcony planters, or even your indoor plants if you don’t have space for a large garden.
WHAT DOES MY COMPOUND MAINLY NEED?
For high-quality compost, mix nitrogen-rich materials (such as clover, fresh grass clippings) and carbon-rich materials (such as dry leaves and straw). Moisture is provided by rain and fresh kitchen waste, but you may need to add water to keep it moist. Turning or mixing the pile often provides oxygen.
Your compost needs to breathe:
Without enough air, your compost pile will decompose, but more slowly…and it will stink a lot! So make sure you have plenty of air space in the stack. The straw works great to keep the pile from burning. If you don’t have access to thatch, be sure to break up the clumps and try turning it with a shovel or garden fork regularly to fluff it up.
Your compost needs to drink:
You want enough moisture to lightly coat every particle in your pile, providing the ideal environment for thirsty microbes. It should be damp like a towel that has been wrung out. Wetter than that and it will start to smell. Kitchen scraps will usually be moist enough, but if you add dry leaves from your garden, you may want to moisten them slightly. If your pile is open to the elements, cover it with a tarp in rainy weather. Excess moisture can cause the temperature inside the pile to drop and cause it to stink. Not enough moisture prevents the pile from heating up and slows down the decomposition process. Check the moisture level of the compost pile weekly and adjust if necessary. Add water to increase humidity or add dry material to help dry it out.
Your compost needs food:
Your composting friends have two food groups…and it’s always best to mix the two if you can:
o Brown (dry) – These materials are high in carbon and include straw, dry leaves, wood chips or ash, peanut shells, pine needles, vegetable stems and shredded cardboard or newspaper (avoid colored paper and inks). You may want to moisten them a bit as you add them to your compost pile.
o Greens (wet): These are rich in nitrogen and include kitchen fruit and vegetable waste, green leaves and grass clippings, tea bags, coffee grounds and even algae. Horse manure is great, but it’s best if it’s well aged. Consult a local stable.
Your compost should be warm:
If you live in a cold climate, chances are your compost pile will be dormant during the winter. It will be in good shape as soon as the spring heat starts to warm it up again. The compost doesn’t need to be hot – 50% Fahrenheit is fine.
You may be considering hot composting (between 110 and 160 degrees F), because heat produces compost quickly (in weeks rather than months) and kills most seeds and plant diseases. However, studies have shown that compost produced at high temperatures has less ability to suppress soil diseases. High heat can kill the beneficial bacteria needed to suppress disease.
o Balance between fresh and dry: Compost piles with a balance of one part fresh and two parts dry materials break down faster. Add a garden fork full of fresh material to the pile and top it with two forks of dry material. Then mix them together.
o Size: Compost piles that are at least 3 cubic feet (3 ft x 3 ft x 3 ft) heat up faster and break down faster.
o Get your compost pile started: If you’re just starting your compost pile, add a shovelful of high-quality garden soil to help start microbial activity in your pile.
o Mixing: If possible, mix the compost once a week to move the material from the outside of the pile to the inside. This prevents the stack from compacting. (compaction reduces air flow and slows decomposition)
o Smelly?: Healthy compost smells like earth; if yours smells, it’s too wet. Turn it more often and add more dry matter to help it dry out. When your compost is too wet, it removes oxygen from the pile, which slows the decomposition process and encourages anaerobic microorganisms to thrive… increasing the stench! It can also smell bad if your mix has too much garden scraps or kitchen scraps. Bury it deep into the compost and add more dry matter.
o When finished: The compost should be dark brown, earthy smelling and moist to the touch. The compound at the bottom of the pile usually “finishes” first. You’ll know your compound is finished and ready to use when it no longer heats up and the original ingredients are unrecognizable. This usually takes 6 to 12 months.
o Nothing happens!: If you notice that nothing happens, you may need to add more nitrogen, water, or air. Cold composting can take a year or more to decompose depending on the pile materials and conditions.
o Compost pile is too hot: If your compost pile is too hot, you may have too much nitrogen. Add more carbon materials to reduce heating. A bad smell can also indicate too much nitrogen.
o It is attracting flies and insects: Adding kitchen waste can attract insects. To avoid this problem, dig a hole in the center of the pile and bury the waste. Don’t forget…don’t add meat scraps or any animal matter, pet manure, diseased plant material, weeds, fats or oils, or dairy products.
o Can I use fresh manure?: No. This could burn your plants. Make sure the manure (NOT dog or cat feces) is well aged before going into your yard.
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