One of the best ways to bring edibles to life is to work nearly dead material into the soil.
Indeed, decomposing matter, in the form of compost, is truly a wonder product. It adds nutrients, activates beneficial soil microorganisms, improves tilth and drainage, and boosts the vitality of your crops.
What’s more, you can make your own.
A simple setup consists of one or two bins measuring 3 feet wide, 3 feet deep and 3 feet tall. Store-bought kits are typically brown or black recycled plastic. Or you can build your own from four posts, enough broad slats or chicken wire to enclose the sides and a tarp to cover the top. Slits between the slats should be wide enough for air flow, but narrow enough to keep out rodents and inquisitive pets.
Where to site your bins is open to debate. Our two “cook” faster in the sun, although shade doesn’t bring the process to a screeching halt. Convenience is probably more important, as is a nearby faucet. You’ll need to water your pile regularly to keep the decomposition going.
The beauty of home-made compost is that the ingredients should already be on hand.
Indoors, collect fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds and leftover grains, including stale bread, rice and pasta. Do not use meat, fat or dairy products. Home compost piles don’t get hot enough to kill pathogens that can contaminate the batch.
Outdoors, gather leaves, lawn clippings, yard trimmings and leftover potting soil. Don’t compost weeds bearing seeds or any potentially diseased material, such as spent tomato plants. Toss those into your green waste: commercial composters generate enough heat to kill contaminants.
You can also collect kelp. Harvesting seaweed in the water requires a sport fishing license and is limited to 10 pounds per day. But any that’s washed up on the sand is fair game. Just don’t do so right after a storm, when upstream pollutants may have washed into the shore water.
Whatever the material, chop, cut or break it into pieces an inch thick or smaller, to hasten decomposition. Throw a three-inch limb onto the pile and it may take years to break down.
An ideal mix is three parts brown (carbon) to two parts green (nitrogen).
Brown waste is literally brown or tan, such as dried leaves, twigs and stale bread. Green waste includes fresh leaves, lawn clippings and produce scraps.
You’ll make the quickest compost by filling the entire bin at once. Layer the materials: a few inches of green, followed by a few inches of brown, and so on. Wet each layer as you go. Moist — but not sopping wet — piles decompose faster than those that are bone dry.
Cover the pile. It should begin to kick off heat within a few days, indicating microbes at work. If not, mix in more green material. Or if the pile smells like ammonia or any grass clippings appear slimy, mix in some carbon instead.
Dampen and turn your pile once a week. The components should start to break down in several months, then turn rich brown. Once the mix smells fresh and crumbles through your fingers, it’s ready to go into the garden. Sift out any larger chunks that haven’t decomposed and save them for your next batch.
Adding all the ingredients at once doesn’t account for ongoing contributions.
That’s why a second bin is handy. I save food scraps in a tight-fitting container on my kitchen counter, then add them to my first bin once a week, along with yard trimmings. Every few weeks, I water the pile and turn it. There’s little heat, but the material does ever so slowly degrade.
When the contents finally reach the top, I dig out a few shovelfuls of the most decomposed material, spread it on the empty bottom of bin #2, then begin my bit-by-bit process again. In the meantime, I occasionally water and turn bin #1. The compost is usually ready in 6 months to a year, which conveniently is just about the time that bin #2 is full.
This is for folks who generate some kitchen waste, but little yard waste. The worms thrive on table scraps and produce worm castings — worm poop — which are a surprisingly wonderful soil amendment.
You’ll need a worm bin, special red worms that thrive in close quarters and a spot where the temperature stays between 55 and 75 degrees. Provide nesting material, such as leaf mold, shredded newsprint and a few handfuls of soil. Add scraps slowly at the outset, to give the worms time to build up their numbers. As with outdoor bins, avoid meat, bones or dairy products.
This article was first published in the Spring 2013 issue of Central Coast Farm & Ranch.
Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.