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Black Gold: Compost provides key nutrients for healthy gardening soil

To the naked eye, vegetable and fruit scraps may look like garbage but really they are just undecomposed soil.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “most people don’t realize how much food they throw away every day — from uneaten leftovers to spoiled produce. About 94 percent of the food we throw away ends up in landfills or combustion facilities. In 2015, we disposed 37.6 million tons of food waste. By managing food sustainably and reducing waste, we can help businesses and consumers save money, provide a bridge in our communities for those who do not have enough to eat, and conserve resources for future generations.” Any food items or yard waste that is thrown into the trash (including leaves, grass clippings, and branches) ends up at the dump. What a waste of waste!

edible-garden1We need to not only manage our food supply better, but also divert as much organic material away from landfills where it generates methane, a greenhouse gas. Instead, we should turn it into a renewable resource that can organically fertilize our soil to grow our food.

Getting Started

Composting at home is one of the greenest things we can do for the environment. It may sound complicated, smelly, and time consuming. But following a few guidelines will keep the process hassle free, limit your time, and curb odor issues. It’s as simple as deciding on the method that best fits your needs.

You have a choice between thermal composting, both slow and fast, and worm composting, otherwise known as vermiculture.

“Vermicomposting is a great option for the home,” recommends Craig Witt of Full Circle Compost in Minden. “It removes the human factor, and lets the worms do the work. Thermal composting is bit more of a time commitment.”

Worm composting bins can be purchased from area garden centers (see sidebar). They come fully assembled and include everything except the worms. It’s a near-odorless, low-maintenance way to get beneficial humus for your garden soil.

Moisture content and diet are the two biggest concerns. Worms like an environment containing 80 percent moisture. Typically, food waste’s high water content is sufficient, but more water may be needed. But too wet, and problems could arise. Feed the worms soft, organic waste such as food scraps and coffee grinds but no meat, dairy, or garden waste. Worms work up through the food, leaving all the soil goodness on the bottom for easy distribution into the garden.

Various Methods

If you want to compost more than just kitchen waste, one of the two thermal composting options will allow you to break down all sorts of yard waste. All thermal recipes have varying proportions of two ingredients: browns and greens. Browns are the carbon source, such as dried leaves, pine needles, straw, plant stalks, and wood chips. Greens are the nitrogen source and include vegetable scraps, fruit, coffee grinds, grass clippings, garden waste, and manure. And, again, it’s best to not add dairy or meat into the pile (most backyard gardeners can’t get the pile hot enough to break down these in a timely fashion). After the ingredients, the two most important aspects in a compost pile are oxygen and moisture. A well-aerated, moist pile provides an aerobic environment that microbes need to break down the organic material.

“Don’t make it complicated,” says Eric Larusson of The Villager Nursery in Truckee. “That’s what I tell my customers. It’s a natural process. Pile it up and let it rot.”

A slow-static pile is great for backyard gardeners. You build the pile as you generate waste, being conscious to layer enough browns with the greens. Erring on the side of more browns always is good because it will help fluff the pile for better aeration. Make sure it doesn’t dry out or get too saturated from rain. When it gets to be about 4 feet by 4 feet by 4 feet (or 4 feet square), or larger, turn it once and let it cure for a month or more. If it takes a whole summer to get one pile that’s OK. But once you turn it, don’t add fresh ingredients. Start a new pile.

“Mix, mash, moisten, and move,” says Pawl Hollis of Rail City Garden Center in Sparks. “And move it to your raised garden beds. Raised beds can be entirely compost and when you need more, just add it.”

Winter Composting

It’s a misconception that you can’t compost in winter. Larusson at The Villager has found that melt-freeze cycles actually help break down kitchen waste faster. Slow composting may not produce mature compost, but that’s OK.

“If it is not completely broken down, use it like mulch and it will still add loads of biology to the soil,” Larusson says.

And if applied before winter, Larusson points out, “The vast majority of decomposition happens in winter under the snow.”

Fast composting can be done in the backyard but like Witt of Full Circle says, it takes commitment. To make compost fast, you have to get the pile hot, but not too hot so the pile goes anaerobic and kills the bacteria and other microbes. Fast composting requires turning at scheduled intervals when the core temperature reaches certain degree points.

“The more you turn the pile, the more air that gets circulated,” says Tom Donovan of RT Donovan Landscape. “The addition of oxygen and water during the turning process revs up the bacteria. It makes the bacteria eat faster, generating more heat in the pile. (Fast composting) is all about turning. If you put the work in, you could have compost in three weeks.”

So pick your style and get composting!