If you’ve ever considered composting your food scraps, I say “What are you waiting for?!?” The above photo represents not even a day’s worth of food scraps generated by my family of four. It almost covered the entire surface of an 11×17 inch cookie sheet. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that approximately 20 to 30 percent of your trash is comprised of food scraps and yard waste. When added to a landfill, they release methane gas, a highly potent and low profile cousin of carbon dioxide. Both are harmful greenhouse gases.
As a gardener, it’s a no brainer to convert our food scraps to “black gold.” My first attempt involved a process used by Trudi Temple, a well-known Chicago area gardener who buried her food scraps in holes around her yard. I did this too, placing large rocks on each burial site to not only remind me where I dug but also to deter my dog. It worked briefly, but one can only have so many large rocks laying around and a dog that can resist for only so long before something’s got to give!
On to Plan B…
I installed an Earth Machine, which sounds more intimidating than it actually is. It came in four pieces that were a cinch to assemble and I located it near my vegetable garden. Four long screws, included in the kit, anchor the compost bin and it’s remained in place for the last five years. I add to the pile daily throughout the year and have had incredible results. This is just a sample of the fruits and veg I grew organically last year.
A harvest door slides up for easy access to the finished compost and ventilation holes around the bin allow for good air circulation. The twist off lid is easy to remove, although it does freeze in place infrequently during the winter. In which case, I corral my scraps in a container on the patio until I’m able to add it to the bin.
Early on, I had trouble aerating the pile. I’d often slice my hands up (I’m not a big fan of gloves) trying to work it as the narrow mouth of the bin is sharp and makes maneuvering a pitch fork inside difficult. A frequently mixed compost pile prevents bad odors and oxygenates the microbes, Mother Nature’s natural garbage men. Several bandaids later and a conversation with a trusted garden friend and I found the fix that made aerating the pile a breeze.
The Compost Crank works like a corkscrew and is available in two lengths. The shorter version fit my needs. Simply turn the handle clockwise and it twists into the bin, only as deep as you want it to go. Give it a tug to pull it up, being careful to use your legs not your back, and it lifts the scraps. I found it especially helpful getting around the edges. Turning the corkscrew counter clockwise releases any material that’s stuck to the tool. I admit I’m not the most conscientious composter, often leaving the pile to its own devices for weeks on end, but this tool has sped up the process so that I have plenty of “black gold” throughout the year, especially when I plant the vegetable garden.
Tips for Cooking Great Compost
Compost is a combination of nitrogen-rich green materials and carbon-rich brown materials. Green materials are things like coffee grounds, yard waste, fruits and veg scraps and grass clippings. Too much grass all at once however will give off an ammonia odor as it decomposes. Brown materials include dry leaves, shredded paper and tree branches. Moisture content is also important as it determines just how fast your pile will cook.
A “squeeze” test will help determine if the pile is too wet or too dry. If liquid drips through your fingers when you squeeze a handful, it’s on the wet side and would benefit from additional brown material or simply leave the lid off the bin to allow the sun to work its magic. If it crumbles apart, you know it’s too dry and things like kitchen scraps or a spray from the garden hose will help balance the bin. Odor issues are easily remedied by checking the moisture content. A few turns of the Compost Crank and a bit of dried leaves usually do the trick. I also add a few handfuls of garden soil to the bin throughout the growing season for it’s plentiful population of beneficial fungi and bacteria.
The addition of bones, meat and dairy will make the compost stink and increase the likelihood that rodents will belly-up to your smorgasbord. So avoid adding them. In the five years that I’ve had my compost bin, I’ve never had a neighbor complain of odors. And they’re always happy to receive a homegrown tomato or zucchini.
Do you compost? What tools work for you?