Thursday, March 29, 2012

Salvaging the compost

The title of this is a little misleading. By "salvaging" I don't mean getting the useful stuff out of your compost, I mean saving it from you. Or rather, in this instance, me. Back in January I noticed that my compost was no longer compressing down. Usually I take my old coffee tin full of compost out to the bin in the garage about once per week, or even a little less depending on what we've cooked. And usually, the pile has mooshed down from the level it was at before. That's a a good thing, it's what compost is supposed to do. Well, mine had stopped doing that. I assumed that it was because the compost froze, since it's near the doors and there was ice on the rim. But then, something happened which I hadn't though possible: I filled up the compost bin in February. This might not seem worrisome, but I could tell that something was wrong. It just didn't look right. The compost wasn't, er, composting. Sure, the food scraps were moldy and rotting. And it smelled like rot, which is not actually what a good compost pile is supposed to do. Further, I keep a plastic lid from a different bin under it so that any liquid doesn't run out all over the garage. Well, this lid was completely full of liquid that I couldn't seem to make go away. At this point, it definitely wasn't because the compost was frozen, so I needed to figure out the real problem.
So I did what I always do in these situations: I checked the tubes (internet) to see what I was doing wrong. Well, I feel silly. I was completely forgetting to add "brown" or "woody" material to the compost. Good compost should have at least a 50-50 ratio of "green" material to "brown" material. Some people even say it should be more like 40-60, with more brown material than green. Since I couldn't exactly add wood chips or dead leaves at this point in the winter, I shredded up a bunch of newspaper (from work--we recycle our papers after two weeks and anyone who wants the old ones is free to take them) and added that on top. Then I let it go for three weeks without adding any more compost. (I have two coffee tins in the kitchen to hold scraps and they got full.) But it worked! The next time I went out to check on it, it was immediately obvious that the compost was once again composting. It had compressed down to almost half of what it had been, the smell was gone, and so was the standing liquid. So now each time I add my food scraps, I also add a layer of newspaper on top. This is the new way I've been handling compost for about a month now and it's working brilliantly.
I have no way of turning over my compost, so no way of seeing what the bottom layer is like. I'm excited, though, because I'm sure there's some quality dirt at the bottom. This summer I'll have to figure out a way to get down there and get at the usable stuff.
I'm also thinking that I might add one light layer of compost-able material to my bins full of dirt before I plant in them. That way as it composts in place this summer, it will release nutrients for whatever I plant in them. And since composting is a heat-generating process, it will help to keep the roots warm, at least in the beginning, and protect them from cold-ish nights. I've heard of other people doing this with great results, so it's worth a try.
And btw, Breakup has started. In less than a week we went from me grumbling about our still cold temperatures to t-shirt weather. Of course, this also means that everything is covered in a layer of slush and muck. I'm back to wearing boots for my walk to and from work so that my pants don't get (too) filthy. Now I just need to convince myself that I really should hold off on planting my seeds until next week or the week after....

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