A Garden’s Black Gold

Composting yields cost savings, a lush harvest and a healthier planet.

By Allan Richter

June 2014


Year after year, Ron Krupp’s garden—filled with an array of tomatoes, chard, kale, lettuce, spinach and radishes—is the envy of his neighbors. Stroll by his yard and you’ll find dandelions, nettles and violets that he mixes with the spinach and lettuce to make salad. “When I came here the soil was sandy and poor,” says Krupp, who lives in Burlington, Vermont. “Now everything is lush and green.”

The secret behind the transformation of Krupp’s soil, and the broad rainbow of colors that sprout from it, is really no secret at all. In fact, it’s hiding in plain sight, in his vegetable scraps, grass clippings, leaves and “anything else that you’d feed the worms,” Krupp says. Compost—Krupp calls it black gold—is accessible to anyone. If you’ve got garbage, you’ve got compost.

Well, it’s not quite as simple as that, but it isn’t difficult. And composting is a grand gesture to the environment. The average American discards almost four pounds of garbage every day, and a third of that is kitchen waste that could be used in a compost heap, says Krupp, who traces the roots of composting to China some 5,000 years ago.

 

Year-Round Recycling

“A compost pile can be started any season of the year,” says Krupp, author of his self-published The Woodchuck’s Guide to Gardening (woodchuck37@hotmail.com). “The basics are easy—collect the organic matter, pile it up, and let it rot.”

In addition to water, your compost pile should be made up of so-called “browns”—materials such as dead leaves, branches and twigs—and “greens,” which include grass clippings and produce waste.

What You Can Compost In Your Yard

Fruits and vegetables; Eggshells; Coffee grounds and filters; Tea bags; Nut shells; Shredded newspaper; Cardboard; Paper; Yard trimmings; Grass clippings; Houseplants; Hay and straw; Leaves; Sawdust; Wood chips; Cotton and wool rags; Dryer and vacuum cleaner lint; Hair and fur; Fireplace ashes

What Not To Compost

Black walnut tree leaves or twigs; Coal or charcoal ash; Dairy products (e.g., butter, milk, sour cream, yogurt) and eggs*; Diseased or insect-ridden plants; Fats, grease, lard, or oils*; Meat or fish bones and scraps*; Pet wastes (e.g., dog or cat feces, soiled cat litter)*; Yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides

* Check with your local composting or recycling coordinator to see if these organics are accepted by your community curbside or drop-off composting program.

The Environmental Protection Agency offers a simple way to get started: Pick a dry, shady spot near a water source. Add the brown and green materials as they are collected, chopping or shredding larger pieces. Moisten dry materials as they are added. Once you establish your compost pile, mix grass clippings and green waste into the pile and bury fruit and vegetable waste under 10 inches of compost material. You can cover the pile with a tarp, but this is optional.

For indoor composting, there are special bins that you can buy or make yourself. The EPA says compost in these types of bins can be ready in two to five weeks, versus the months for a yard compost pile.

That pile may look motionless, but it is actually a menagerie of living microbes—bacteria, actinomycetes, fungi, protozoa and rotifers—working to break down organic matter and produce carbon dioxide, water, heat and humus, the soil-enriching end product.

 

A Wealth of Materials

The list of waste items you can compost is long and diverse. In addition to food items such as fruits, vegetables, eggshells and coffee grounds, you can compost cotton and wool rags, as well as dryer and vacuum cleaner lint, among other items, the EPA says.

Composting does require exercising some caution. Composting black walnut tree leaves or twigs, for instance, or coal or charcoal ash, could release substances that could harm plants, the EPA says. Dairy products, meat or fish bones and scraps could create odor problems and attract pests. And pet wastes might contain harmful pathogens.

The time it takes for compost to be ready depends on the season. In warmer weather compost could be ready in two months, perhaps less, says Lee Reich, PhD, author of Weedless Gardening (Workman). Build a pile in late fall, and it will be ready by late spring. Reich turns his compost piles inside out after a month so the outside layers can get their chance to cook in the dank, warm inside of the pile.

You don’t have to turn a pile like this, but it can help to see if the interior is too dry, in which case you should add some water, Reich notes. If it’s too wet, loosen it up a bit so it can more easily air-dry.
Your compost is ready when it has the earthy smell of a rich, woodsy soil, Reich notes, and the ingredients are unrecognizable.

A Japanese bokashi compost system will create compost relatively quickly, on the order of about two weeks. The system works in a sealed bin; each waste layer is covered with a light sprinkling of a special bran dust treated with anaerobic microorganisms that function without oxygen. This system lets you compost cooked foods, including dairy, meat and fish.

Composting enriches soil, reduces the need for fertilizers and cuts methane emissions from landfills while shrinking your carbon footprint. It’s a win all around.

 

Instead of sending food waste and other refuse on their way to a landfill,
composting will nourish your garden and help the planet.

Food Cycler Readies Compost Quickly

Forget the months of collecting refuse to build a huge compost pile that takes many more months to “cook” before it’s ready for use in your garden. The short-cycle Food Cycler from Food Cycle Science is an odorless, eco-friendly, in-home composting unit. In as little as three hours, kitchen scraps can be reduced by up to 90% into a highly mature, nutrient-rich soil amendment, ideal for gardening applications.

The Food Cycler is compact, about a cubic foot in size. The unit is easy to use and maintain as there are no enzymes, pellets or additives required. Simply load the bucket. The removable, dishwasher-safe basket allows the Food Cycler to operate anywhere in the home, saving valuable counter space. Visit www.nofoodwaste.com or call (855) FOR-NOWASTE.

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EcoCrock for Stylish Composting

The EcoCrock compost bin is meant to be placed on the countertop, staying clean and stylish while storing leftover food scraps for composting. The EcoCrock compost bin lid has a sprout handle and holes for airflow and a natural charcoal filter that absorbs odors. The bin comes with two charcoal filters and holds up to 3.5 quarts of material. It includes a plastic inner bucket for easy emptying and cleaning. Replacement filters are sold separately. Visit www.chefn.com or call (866) 64 CHEFN.

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