Composting: What is it?
During these worrisome times, gardening is quickly becoming popular for those seeking a safe outdoor activity that is not just physically beneficial, but also mentally and economically beneficial. Our collective food supply is experiencing disruption in distribution and as more folks become aware of how the system of agriculture works, tending one’s own garden is not only deeply satisfying but a great way to ensure the growing process and resulting bounty is clean and reliable.
According to the County of Santa Barbara website lessismore.org, “organic wastes, such as food waste and yard waste, make up 25 to 50% of what people throw away”. Composting can reduce the percentage of organic waste in landfills, where it takes up space and produces dangerous methane gas while decomposing there. When composting at home, we turn the materials allowing oxygen to enter the mix, lessening greenhouse gases.
Composting is nature’s resourceful way to fertilize and repair soils, softening clay-like soil, or helping sandy soils better retain water. It occurs without human assistance in forests and other naturescapes, for example, when fruit, branches, leaves, or dead animals decompose on the forest floor. The soil involved becomes enriched by the breakdown of those organic materials, resulting in beneficial bacteria, microbes, and chemicals. When we compost for our gardens, we are assisting and speeding up the decomposition of organic materials. Compost creates the rich layer of humus plants need to thrive and produce brag-worthy plant life filled with vitamins, color, and heartiness.
Thinking about composting? Here is some information to consider:
You don’t need a lot of space to compost.
There is an idea that one needs lots of space, or plans to grow a lot of produce, to warrant the effort of composting. Actually, it can be done on any scale for which we have the space, energy, and need. We can even compost indoors using modified five gallon buckets, old dresser drawers, or plastic bins. The Spruce has great tips on how to do this ourselves. Also, there are many stylish, inexpensive online options for outdoor and indoor bins, as well as at our local gardening store and several of our favorite retail establishments. There are even kitchen countertop versions available!
Should I compost the traditional way, or vermicompost?
Vermicomposting utilizes worms to better aerate the soil, as well as hasten the decomposition process of our materials. With traditional compost, we need to turn the materials to bring oxygen to the process. With vermicompost, the worms do this with their wriggling movements, reducing the physicality required from us. This is ideal for gardeners who have limited mobility. Also, Vermicompost takes much less time to be ready, while traditional compost can take between six and nine months to be ready for use. Another advantage of vermiculture is worm castings. Castings are the waste eliminated by worms, and are higher in phosphorus, potassium, and nitrogen than traditional composting.
Traditional composting also has its advantages. It can be done indoors or outdoors, bins can be as deep or shallow as we desire, and turning the compost can be physically satisfying exercise. And while both methods improve soil quality, plant growth and yield, and when done properly, limit dangerous or destructive pests, traditional composting is less expensive than vermicomposting. Traditional composting also uses heat, while vermiculture necessitates regulated cooler temperatures, more precise ratios of materials, and requires a slightly more complex harvest.
I’ve heard it’s smelly business! And what about pests?
We’ve heard this, too! But the fact of the matter is that done correctly, compost does not offend. Composting is a delicate balance of water, air, and differing organic materials. Given this, there are a few conditions which contribute to a bad smelling compost.
Too much moisture.
If your compost is too wet, the microbes ordinarily responsible for breaking materials down cannot do that work. If the pile is not turned often enough, the other materials not abundant enough, or the pile is located in space that is too cool. An overabundance of moisture brings down oxygen levels, slowing the decomposition process.
The components are not proportionate ..
A compost pile, or vermicompost bin, holds materials. We add what are called “brown” materials, “green” material, and water. Each of these materials does a job important to the nutrient content of the pile. Too much of either green or brown materials inhibits the breakdown of material.
Items like meat and dairy were added.
Meat and dairy can be composted, being super-rich in nutrients, but separately from green waste compost. Meat products, bones, and dairy should be composted on a smaller scale, covered. Composting such material, however, may bring pests to the pile.
What is in compost?
Compost consists of brown and green materials, as well as soil and water. “Brown materials for composting include dry or woody plant material. In most cases, these materials are brown, or naturally turn brown like fall leaves, pine needles, scratch papers, twigs, tree branches and bark”. The green materials are the food waste added, such as banana peels, tea leaves and tea bags, egg shells, rinds and used coffee grounds. Then, water (and worms, if vermicomposting). These proportions matter. If there is too much food waste, or green, the food is simply wet and spoiling. Too much brown can dry out our pile.
These materials are layered in the bin. Begin with a diverse collection of brown materials, then a layer of green waste, and a little water to keep things moist so micro-organisms can do their powerful work. Then add some more paper, leaves, yard trimmings, food scraps, and so on as needed.
How the bin is situated is also important. When doing traditional compost, ideally the bin rests on the ground to catch some of those organisms. The more diverse the organic materials, including bugs and organisms that break down materials, the higher the quality of the resulting humus. Where it is situated matters, too. Heat is integral to the chemical breakdown of the materials. Vermicompost bins need to be kept in a cool space, typically indoors, to keep worms from drying out and dying. The worms do the work of breaking down materials, making the process physical rather than chemical. This means gardeners need to turn their piles more often with the traditional method.
All that is to say . . .
Our sister farm, Sunna Ra Acres, uses compost to feed our gorgeous, fragrant cannabis! If we have the desire, energy, and resources, composting is a beneficial way to nourish our soil, enrich our produce, and participate in our food production, ensuring its cleanliness and nutritional value and beauty. From soil, to seed, to harvest, to consumption, starting with amended soil, along with healing the soil we use, brings huge pride and satisfaction for so many gardeners.
For additional information, check out these sources:
Stop Compost Smell! 5 Reasons Your Compost Stinks
Why Does My Compost Pile Smell Bad?
How to Hot Compost
Which Items are "Greens", and Which are "Browns?"
Vermicomposting 101: What Are the Differences Between Vermicomposting and Composting?
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