The Unexpected Joys of Compost
By Patricia Dines
The Next STEP newsletter
(c) Patricia Dines, 2007. All rights reserved.
Fall is a good time to set up your home composting system, before the rains come and drive us all back into our nests. Composting is a simple way to recycle your food and gardening waste into beautiful enriched soil that nurtures your plants non-toxically. Plus you can be "part of the solution," making good use of these nutrients instead of shipping them away to landfills who-knows-where to be buried too deeply to really decompose.
But perhaps you only have a small patio. Can you still compost? Over the past few years, I've been exploring just that question, playing with options and seeing what works.
What I've learned is that, yes, even in a small space, you can easily turn your food waste into lush soil, better than anything you can get in a bag. I've been amazed at how well my plants grow in this cultivated dirt! Fertile soil truly is the foundation of healthy gardening.
I also love one of the unexpected delights of composting - plant volunteers. Just this year my compost has given me strawberry plants, squash, and a forest of cantaloupe sprouts, which have then filled their own containers with abundance. Their vibrancy shows me just how nourishing my compost has become.
Setting Up Simple Composting
If you want a simple basic backyard composting setup, here's all you need - a container, some starter dirt, a trowel, food scraps, and worms. Oh, and a few tips to help it all work smoothly, which follow now.
(1) Select your container(s). You can start with any container (say one foot across and one foot high) with drain holes. At some point, you'll want to figure out how you'd like to harvest your enhanced soil. You can just start a second container and stop adding to the first. Or, when you know more about the features you want, you can buy or build a fancier setup, with trays for different levels of "doneness," lids, wheels, and more. Look at Harmony Farm Supply for options (823-9125 <www.harmonyfarm.com>). Also, North Bay Corp. offers a Smith & Hawken composter at cost to anyone in this area (586-5547, <www.unicycler.com>; look under any Service Area).
(2) Choose your spot. Find a convenient location, near your kitchen and a hose. Add a few inches deep of starter dirt, say from the ground or unneeded potted plants. Water it. Put a trowel nearby to regularly stir it.
(3) Add worms. This is the secret to composting in a small space. Worms love feasting on food scraps and thus turbocharge the process! Find some in your yard or at a friend's; look on <www.freecycle.com>; or call Sonoma Valley Worm Farm at 996-8561.
(4) Gather food scraps. Set up a container in your kitchen. (I use a 32-ounce yogurt container near my sink.) Don't add meat, milk, or other foods that spoil quickly, as they can smell up your kitchen and attract critters to your outside bin. I also avoid tough materials that break down poorly, such as corn cobs and husks.
(5) Combine, water, and stir. Put your food scraps periodically into your compost bin, covering them with dirt. Only put in an amount your container size can reasonably absorb. Water the soil regularly, to keep it moist and the worms happy. Periodically turn the dirt to keep everything well-distributed. Add dirt if needed. You can also add modest amounts of leaves, hay, and other "green" and "brown" natural material. Avoid anything too hard, such as branches.
(6) Harvest your luscious soil. Over time, you'll see amazing amounts of food disappear as your composting soil gets darker and richer. When you want to harvest soil, you can either dig around to find dirt without food in it, or stop adding food to that container. Use your enriched soil to pot new plants, or sprinkle it over the dirt in existing pots to add nutrients. (If some worms get transferred too, it's OK!)
There are many approaches to composting. To find out more, see TNS I/6; look in books or online; or call the Master Gardeners, 527-2608.
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