Andy Fleming writing about composting…
Composting is an easy way to reduce the amount of household waste you’re disposing and create a free fertilizer for your garden.
An estimated 30% of all waste is compostable. That means you can expect one third less waste filling up your trashcan or clogging your garbage disposal. If you’re paying for a refuse service, that’s instant savings.
Plus, if you spend any money on fertilizer, you could be using compost instead…making even further savings. It’s better for your plants and your garden will see the most immediate benefit. You’ll be creating a closed-loop of self-sufficient waste disposal.
Composting is good for the environment. Food scraps produce methane when left to rot in landfills, and pollutants from potentially compostable materials often end up in lakes and streams. By composting, you’re doing your part to keep the world habitable for future generations.
There are several composting methods to choose from. Picking the best method for you depends on how much time and space you have, plus personal preferences on whether or not you’re willing to handle worms and grubs.
Cold composting is the easy compost solution. It can take up to a year, and doesn’t generate much extra heat; but you don’t need much space and you won’t have to worry so much about maintaining carbon to nitrogen ratios.
All you need to start cold composting is a container. Plastic, bread or milk crates work great as they allow for a lot of ventilation, which speeds up the process. Simply line one with cloth, mesh, or fabric to keep everything inside. Keep your container close to your kitchen sink and throw any vegetable or fruit waste inside.
Make sure you’re not adding meat, manure, or plants with visible signs of disease. Hot compost reaches temperatures which kill most bacterial compounds, but cold compost does not. If you add diseased plant matter into your cold compost bin and later use it as fertilizer, the disease could spread to your garden.
Also be mindful of the fact that seeds will survive the cold composting process, so a garden fertilized with cold compost will need to be weeded more often. One helpful tip: add rolled up newspaper to cold compost to increase airflow and speed up the process.
The most inconvenient part of cold composting is harvesting the finished material. Once 12 months have passed, you’ll want to harvest from the bottom of the composter first. Special purpose-made composting bins allow for easy access to the bottom of the pile but most cost over $100. You can build your own, mostly using scrap wood and chicken wire.
Hot composting is a great method for anyone living off grid since it generates energy which can be used to cook or heat water. The process is simple and free, but requires a decent amount of space and some close attention. Expect a month to go by before hot compost is ready to be used as fertilizer.
The biggest limitation to building a hot compost pile is the space. It’s recommended your compost pile be at least 12 cubic feet in size. This makes it difficult to find a standard “compost bin” big enough to hold the pile. Fortunately, “naked compost piles” without any structural support are quite common, and you can always build a quick frame out of a few pallets if need be.
A good, simple DIY compost bin can be made from a large trashcan. Just buy the cheapest one available and drill a few dozen holes in the sides and lid. You can seal the lid and roll the can around to mix your compost easily.
You want your pile to be about 30:1 parts carbon:nitrogen. Common sources of carbon are brown, plant-based materials such as sawdust, cardboard, leaves, and branches. Nitrogen comes mostly from moist organic material. This is your fruit and vegetable scraps, animal manure, and grass clippings.
After gathering enough material for a pile, the process is very simple. Big materials like branches should be broken up to increase surface area, but other than that you simply want to mix your material together evenly and leave it in a big clump. Scientists studying composting at The University of Berkley recommend you leave your pile for four days initially, and then turn every other day for two weeks. Compost piles should be turned from outside to inside to ensure thorough mixing.
You can test your hot compost to see if it’s working by sticking your hands in the middle. If the pile is almost too hot to handle, it’s been well mixed. You can ensure thorough mixing by building a hot compost tumbler like this one.
Well-made hot compost can reach temperatures of up to 170 F. As a homesteader, running water pipes through the center of your compost pile can create self-sufficient hot water. You can also spread a cup or two on a tray and use it like a mini-stove.
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