Sunday, March 27, 2011

The beauty of decomposition aka "Compost Happens"

There are so many ways to compost - vermiculture in which worms eat your kitchen scraps, hot compost, cold compost, humanure and on and on. I'll share some of the ways I've composted in the past and what I'm currently doing.
I teach my high school students that about 30% of our MSW (municipal solid waste) is organic matter that could be composted. To me it is among the worst sins to send organic matter to the landfill. I have had roommates who thought I was heading towards bag-ladyness because I would pull their food scraps (and recycling) out of the trash. The landfill is like hell for organics. They don't decompose on any real time scale because there's not enough oxygen or friction. Heaven for organics is your compost pile, compost pit, stuffed under a bush or anywhere else they can decompose and get added to soil again.

Compost can become a bit of an obsession but I'm all for obsessions like this. No one gets hurt, it doesn't cost any money and it does a lot of good for the planet. You might feel a little kooky taking scraps home from your non-composting friends and family but you'll get over it.

For most of us urban dwellers the waste we generate in the greatest quantity are kitchen scraps. A great way to deal with kitchen scraps is via a worm bin. Kitchen scraps decompose into slimy, stinky, wet, nitrogen-rich goo after a short while. This goo is manna for worms. NOTE: Not all worms are created equally! Some worms (night crawlers come to mind) need to be in the dirt and eat things that aren't readily available in compost. Red wigglers (Eisenia fetida) are the ones you want. You can get them at bait shops, buy them online, or (my favorite) throw a bunch of straw or rich organic matter on the ground and then scoop them up a couple weeks later. They are small and deep reddish pink. I could be off about this but my understanding is they aren't actually eating the food you put out for them but rather they live on the decomposers that are breaking that food down. Who cares?! They turn that goo into crumbly worm castings that make your plants very very happy.
There a gazillion different kinds of worm composting systems. I've tried plastic boxes, wooden boxes, and a few different purchased plastic products. My vote goes to the can '0 worms or any of the other plastic worm composters with multiple levels you can add. It makes the job super easy to harvest and maintain your worm bin. There's a lot of information online about how to do worm composting. JUST DO IT!

If you have a yard a compost bin or a compost pile is definitely in order. You can use this for kitchen scraps and yard waste and ideally would have all of this in the perfect ratio for composting 25-30:1 carbon to nitrogen. All that means is you need a whole lot of "brown" stuff (dried leaves, small twigs, sawdust, straw, or any other source of carbon) to whatever "green" stuff you have (can include manure, kitchen scraps, or any other rich gooey, funk smelling nitrogen loaded waste). The nitrogen rich material gets the microbes the energy boost they need to tackle the much harder to break down carboniferous (love that word!) material. Ideally you have a way to mix these components together in your pile too so the little bacteria divas don't have to travel far to get from one type of nutrient to the other.

There are people who get PhDs (pile higher and deeper) in compost and who have thermometers and data sheets and really get into this process. More power to them! For me it's just a means to an end. I LOVE decomposition. When I was a kid instead of running away from dead animals we'd find I'd poke them with a stick (can you say "tom boy"?!). It's fascinating to me and I appreciate all the players involved in keeping beauty and abundance on this planet! Yeah decomposers and detrivores! BUT, with limited time I'm a pile it and forget about it kind of composter. and that works just fine too. If you're like me you probably don't get that steamy hot pile of compost that could heat your water pipes and you don't kill weed seeds (best to keep them out of the pile then) or pathogens (please don't be pooping in your cold compost pile either! What would the neighbors think?). But it works fine and I get rich crumbly compost after a while and add it to my garden soil. If you want to go the hot compost route use google to get more info and then share your secrets with the rest of us! Also there are a huge range of fancy and unfancy composters you can buy. My compost is in a wooden bin that the previous homeowners built. My ideal composter I built at a rental two houses ago. It consisted of two large bins next to each other with cinderblock walls. One side was for "cooking" and the other side was for adding. I'd keep both sided moderately wet and covered with a tarp. It worked pretty well. If you want you can spend $1000 on a fancy composter from Germany that has a pretty handle to spin your compost and takes up more room than your shed. But why would you?

A word of warning: Once you open the Pandora's box of decomposition all manner of strange interests and strange sites will greet you. My first window fly larva (on my pillow of all places) had me racing to the internet to figure out what this odd segmented thing with no discernable head was). I still have no idea how it got on my pillow but now I know that those creepy (makes me shudder honestly) little things are just window fly larvae and they actually help break food down so the worms have an easier time of digesting it. Be willing to open to the magic! It's sort of a Kali-esque embrace of death really. There's no greater mystery to explore and you don't even need to die to do it!

and I couldn't talk about compost without mentioning something I recently learned a great deal about. Humanure! Something even hard core Greenies are afraid to talk about! Last month the folks at Homegrown Evolution (amazing folks) hosted Nancy Klehm who shared about her experience composting human waste with the Humble Pile project. It was pretty incredible and when they finally passed around some the contents of the humble pile from the house - 1 year old composted toilet stuff it was unbelievable. Looked just like crumbly rich compost out of the bag from the garden store. I have yet to set up my 5 gallon bucket toilet seat system at my homestead but I'm no longer afraid of it and eager to stop wasting all that good nitrogen by sending it into the city sewage system. Now, if I happen to travel to a developing nation or if a plague sweeps through LA I may feel differently about composting my poo for a year (two if necessary) but based on what was shared at the Poo Salon, I feel like I can do it safely.

Once you start composting you will wonder how you ever used to throw stuff in the trash can. It seems like such a waste!

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