Monday, September 17, 2012

Successful composting in the suburbs

As an adjunct to my landscaping and gardening posts, a word here about composting.  It's surprisingly difficult to find any quick-n-dirty (pun intended) descriptions of how to do home composting on the internet.  The commercial co-opting of the topic is so intense that you even have to be careful to avoid ads and scammers while searcing for Wiki entries.
Liars.  That's not a Wiki site. That's a Trojan title.  Screengrab from a Google search.
Position statements:
  1. I'm not out to save the world or save the whales or anything else through a "green" composting effort.  The fact is, gardens and landscaping have to be supplemented with regular infusions of organic compost, and it costs a surprising amount of money - about $12.00 per each small bag of quality material, and you need to apply many bags if you want to treat a landscape properly.  Composting puts money in my pocket instead of in my trash dumpster.  I estimate that my composting DIY saves me between $50 and $100 per year.  Not riches, but it's also not more difficult than hauling trash to the curb, so why not?
  2. The approach to composting that I'm going to show here is unsophisticated, reflecting my personal love affair with the 80/20 Rule.  I want to put in minimum effort and get something substantial out of it, but I'm not interested in spending a lot of time tweaking the process in order to actually maximize returns.  If you want to screw around with the details of how you compost, you could probably get more material out of the process in less time than what I'm going to detail below.
In order to make your composting job easier, you need two implements:
  • A receptacle on your kitchen counter or under your sink.
  • A receptacle in your yard.
Yard receptacle.  I use an "Earth Machine" composter, which is basically an open barrel with a convenient trap door at the bottom that allows easy removal of the bottom layers of formed compost.
Screengrabbed from The Earth Machine website.
I got mine from a City of Houston distribution event held several years ago, but guess what??  There's another one scheduled for next month:
Here is the screengrab from this COH newsletter.
It's not clear whether these sales are supposed to be restricted to City of Houston residents only.  I believe you have to give your address when you make your purchase, but I'm not sure they'd actually turn anyone away if they happen to be outside the city limits.  Money is money, after all.  Contact the organizer if you have questions. 
You actually can compost without any receptacle at all, if you just put your stuff in a pile (or you can build a receptacle for free using wooden pallets or other materials).  But these are the tony suburbs here, so I wanted something compact and not messy and not unsightly (not that anyone can actually get a view of the thing from any public area).

I put my composter in that godawful five-foot setback we have on the west side of our house.
I tend to leave the lid off, because that way the rain keeps the material moist without any additional effort on my part.
This narrow space is good for Absolutely Nothing, except maybe storage and the occasional composter so, again, why not?  Centerpointe has a minimum five-foot setback provision written into its subdivision specs, and our personal setback is five point zero zero zero feet (5.000') by design.  Seriously, the more I live in Centerpointe, the more I wish we'd had a zero lot line option, because I could sure have used this wasted 5.000 feet on the other side of my yard instead of here.  I mean, if we're going to have microscopic yards, we might as well go all the way. 

But I digress.  Here is how you do composting in two easy steps.

(1) Throw kitchen scraps and yard waste into the top, observing just these simple rules:
  • Do not include any foods that contain protein or fats.  EVER.  Do not break this rule, or you will have rodents, infestations of flies, and odors.  Acceptable composting materials include all fruit scraps, eggshells, tea and coffee grounds, all vegetable scraps, and carbohydrate-based food waste such as breads (no butter), rice, pasta, etc. 
  • Do not include grass clippings except in very small quantities.  They disrupt the biochemistry.
  • I have found that you can add all manner of other yard waste (minus grass clippings) although if you want to get rid of big branches and whatnot, you have to chop or grind them up or they'll simply take too long to break down.  I'm still searching for an acceptable yard waste grinder.  Haven't found one yet. 
  • Add some brown and some green material.  I keep a small container of ordinary yard mulch next to the composter so that, in the event that I end up with too much green stuff and/or too much food material, I have something to cover it up with, and balance it out (I'll illustrate this in photos below). Various internet websites will tell you you have to add this percentage or that percentage of brown and green, but I don't overthink the situation.  What's most important is that you have some of each.   
(2) Remove valuable compost from the bottom.  Again, that's the stuff that would otherwise cost you twelve bucks a bag.  How long the compost takes to develop depends on many variables but your eyeballs will tell you when its ready. 

Pictures tell a thousand words apiece.  Here is a photo series showing the compost harvest I did last weekend (because it's time to begin fall gardening - I usually harvest our compost in the spring and in the fall, as I'm getting the garden beds ready for the next round of planting).
Here's what it looked like when I first took the side hatch off.  You see that very dark material at the bottom?  That's called "Gardener's Gold" or "Black Gold". 

So this is pretty easy - you just stick a sharp-shooter (small shovel) in there and dig it out.  Again, you want just the fully composted black layer at the bottom.  It will be very fine-grained and fairly homogeneous-looking, as you can see in the wheelbarrow below. 
It's a deceptively large amount of material - enough for a wheelbarrow load.
So after you get done excavating the Gardener's Gold, you'll be left with a void space at the bottom.  You next need to move the non-composted overlying slug of material down into this space.
The easiest way I have found to do that is to simply jump in and stomp on it.
And then you've got it pushed all the way down...

... and you can start adding new materials.  Here, I had harvested my sweet potatoes from my summer garden (more on sweet potatoes later), so I had all those tops to dispose of.  I could have instead packed this stuff into heavy-duty (money-costing) trash bags and hauled it to the curb, but why??
OK, let's divert for a moment and talk about the kitchen compost receptacle.  That's mine in the center there, and yes, I admit to being a home decor junkie.  Having purchased and tried numerous of the compost crocks that are on the market and then found them to be lacking for various reasons, I recently settled upon one made by Delafield Pottery because the guy makes really good stuff and he's a micro-business owner who lives in Deer Park, I believe, so if you buy from him, you're supporting a creative local micro-business owner instead of simply buying some "Made in China" big-box piece of junk.  You'll often find Mr. Delafield at the Clear Lake Shores Farmer's Market but if you want to check out his stuff, you might want to contact him to verify when he's planning to be there. 
So simultaneously with my compost bin excavation and my sweet potato harvest, it was also time to dump the kitchen compost crock.  I cook frequently, so I normally fill mine two to five times a week, and we are only a family of three.  It's actually more food material than you might first imagine, that can be diverted to compost this way.
So that nutrient-rich kitchen crock stuff went on top of the newly-stomped upper layer of the existing compost mass.
Then I covered that up with the sweet potato tops and some half-rotted mulch that had accidentally gotten waterlogged because it got left in a watertight container.  Remember - add a bit of green, and add a bit of brown.  The composting process will work itself out from there. 
I tend to keep a brick on top of my active pile just to help with compression and moisture retention. 

Keep adding layer after layer of every material that qualifies (remembering no fats and no proteins).  You will be amazed at how much crap you can cram into a device like this, because it starts to break down and compact very quickly.  It's like it disappears into a black hole or something.  I'm usually adding stuff multiple times per week, and it just keeps swallowing it.
I've been using The Earth Machine in this way for the better part of two years now and I haven't had any issues with rodents, flies, or odors.  You will see some bugs around the thing, because the bugs are among the critters that are converting your yard trimmings and food scraps into compost (natural microbes also do a lot of this work).  Mostly I see worms and earwigs and other miscellaneous harmless six-legged things that I can't identify.  In conjunction with bugs, you will also tend to see these things hanging around outside the composter:
Amphibious dorks, otherwise known as common toads.  Last night, two of them had jumped into an empty mulch container in search of their next meal, and so I needed to liberate them this morning. 

Nice and plump, ain't they??  Obviously well-fed.  They're both hunkering down here thinking, "Please, no!!  We don't want to have our picture taken!!"
So there you have yet another riveting expound on daily life in the unexpectedly-fascinating suburbs.  Email me if you have any questions about this stuff.

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