Composting, in all it's dusty, dirty, damp, wormy and rotting wonderfulness is a small way each of us can improve the Earth, in a very literal way. When we bag our grass clippings and leaves and send them away, be it to the landfill (please don't!) or recycling center, we are effectively mining our properties of nutrients. The chemical fertilizers many of us resort to to put those nutrients back into our soils actually degrade our soils, and reduce the nutrition in what we grow in those soils. Why pay someone to mine our yards and then pay another company to give us back the nutrients we just sent away, but of a sub-standard quality?
This tumbling compost bin was my birthday present to myself. It is a batch style composter, which means you fill it up, add a bit of activator, moisten and tumble it daily for 4-8 weeks. Voila! Compost is done and ready to be added to your garden, enriching the soil, and making for bigger tomatoes. This is great, but then what do you do with your yard and kitchen wastes while a batch is cooking? Costco to the rescue, with a very reasonably priced and enormous compost bin, pictured on the right. A pile works just as well, but I have a precocious dog (Athena) who loves to eat anything she can get ahold of, and even better if it's in some stage of decomposition.
Google provides tons of information about the hows, whys and why nots of composting. It can be as simple or as complicated as you have the time and inclination for. A big pile in a corner of the yard works just fine, and it'll be done when it's done. Nature doesn't need our help to make things rot, it's the way of things!
What if you're impatient to get that black goodness, like I am? I have veggies to plant this spring, and they will be happier with a nice top dressing of compost. Well, then there are guidelines. Ratios of greens vs. browns. Greens are things like fresh grass clippings, kitchen scraps and, yes, even coffee grounds. Greens are fresher, moist, and nitrogen-rich. Browns are things like dead leaves, dry grass clippings, and shredded paper. They are carbon rich and dry. Ideally, you are looking for an equalish parts of greens and browns, and you should water your compost to be moist, but not soggy.
Air is important for decomposition, so don't soak your pile! You can turn your pile periodically to keep it aerated, which is why the tumbler is so fantastic. It's much easier that turning with a pitchfork, and less messy. Some people set up a three bin system with pallets and chicken wire, turning the pile from one bin into the next, with finished compost ending up in the last bin. I like this method, both for it's simplicity and containment, but Athena would like it even more.
Compost piles that sit directly on the ground have an advantage over piles that are contained in a tumbler. Critters. Microbes, insects, worms, and other miscellaneous and extremely valuable agents of decomposition. Help out the helpers by converting what you put in the compost into as small of pieces as possible. More surface area = faster decomposition. They've got little mouths! Consider putting your kitchen scraps in the blender before you dump them in the pile, if you're impatient like me :) You can buy compost activators at your local garden center. The one I found is made by Age Old Organics. Soil Bio-Activator & Compost Accelerator (Kelp Meal Granular) We'll see how it works, but this is a good company, and the product came highly recommended.
OK, so what can't go in the bin? Basically, anything that rots will, given enough time. Sticks, however, take a very long time. It's best to save them for the chipper or take them to the recycle center. That said, don't put meat, dairy, greasy scraps or pet wastes into your bin, or you're likely to attract vermin, and it's going to smell pretty rank. However, waste from herbivores can go in the compost. (rabbits, hamsters, goats, sheep, etc.) A healthy pile shouldn't stink. If it does, it probably needs to be aerated, and make sure your food scraps are buried.
Your compost is done when it doesn't look like what you put in it anymore! It should be dark, moist, and smell like the earth in the springtime. Forget oil, this is the true black gold! Crumbly and dark, you can use it to top dress existing plantings, or mix into the soil in preparation for a new garden. Backyard composting is the ultimate localization of resources. You don't use any fossil fuels to transport anything, unless you buy a prefabricated bin (made of recycled plastic), and the rewards are substantial.
What are you waiting for? Go get dirty!