Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Myths of Composting

dill and cilantro bolting
First off, the photos are just pretty. They have nothing to do with composting, except that you could put all this stuff in the compost if you wanted!

My main fascination with composting began when I was doing research for a paper in college and I read up on Meronite monks. They were forced to seek refuge in the mountains of Lebanon, and they made rocky, infertile soil bloom and reaped huge harvests out of untenable land. The only way you can do that is to make soil, and the only way to make soil when you don't have any is to compost.

Something from nothing. Trash to treasure. Redemption.

Fascination and willingness are not really enough to get a compost heap, well, composting. I read up on it, and have been trying it for several years without much luck until recently. Frankly, it has seemed a bit like alchemy. Finally reading the Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins helped me understand on a theoretical level what was supposed to be happening, and gave me pointers on the practical side too. My compost is no longer just sitting there inert. Most days it is breaking down faster than I can add new material. I thought maybe the things I have learned could help you too! This is really just to whet your appetite though. I am speaking out of my own understanding of the book, and my own very limited experience. You should read for yourself if you are interested.

In no particular order, here are some of the big myths the book busted for me:
  • You can't put meat, cooked kitchen scraps, cheese, or anything with oil on it (and so on and so forth), in your compost.
Yes you can, and you should! The reason you are advised not to use those items is that it could make your compost stink just like it makes your trashcan stink if you don't do it right.
Put it into a hole in the middle of the pile and cover it with something like fallen leaves, weeds, junk mail, cardboard boxes, dryer lint, sewing scraps from natural fabrics... you get the picture. My mulch pile usually smells fresh and earthy unless it gets out of balance.

  • Don't water it much.
This is not so much a myth as it is non-applicable in the southwest heat. Apparently a "wrung out sponge", as everyone refers to it, is wetter elsewhere. It takes a lot of water to keep compost going, and we don't get much out of the air in my area. I have to water quite a lot more than I expected. The return on the water you use comes later when you use the compost, because your new soil will have better water retention when your plants need it.
  •  You need to turn your compost pile. 
The main argument for this is aeration, but apparently turning doesn't keep it aerated long. Your best bet is to layer compact slimy things like whatever was lurking in the back of your fridge, with fluffy dry things like wadded up pages from the telephone book or hay. When I dig into my newly functioning pile, it looks kind of spongy and striated, like digging into leaf mold.
  • You need to find an animal to get manure to add nitrogen to your pile. 
Nitrogen is also in your own waste, which is far more accessible to the urban and suburban composter than cow pies. Even if the idea of adding poop to your compost pile freaks you out, remember that you could drink urine in an emergency situation. It is clean, and it is chock full of valuable nitrogen.

  • You need to mix the perfect blend of "wets and dries" or "greens and browns" every time you put a new batch of materials into your pile.
Thinking I needed to make a magical blend was a real deterrent for me. Piles of scraps would sit on the kitchen counter waiting for me to have the time to mix. Once mixed and tossed in the box, fruit flies plagued me, and the whole thing smelled bad! Now I dig into the pile a little, layer my new wet scraps with whatever dry item comes to hand, give it a quick sprinkle with the sprinkler head on my water hose, and cover it with a little bit of the old stuff. No scientific measuring necessary. 
  • Compost should heat up and stay hot for the duration.
It should heat up, but heating is only one of several phases. If you are doing household composting you are continually adding small batches to your pile, and the pile will be in several phases at once! You will have creepy crawlies, but they are going to be doing their valuable business in cooler areas of the pile. If it were hot all the time it would kill some of the very life forms that assist the composting process. 

I am certain that this does not comprise a comprehensive list of my composting misapprehensions, but it put more than luck on my side. I hope it does the same for you!



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