Mind your browns and greens: Starting down the composting path.
by Melissa Martin
So you want to start a compost pile, but you're concerned you need a science degree? You've heard that using compost enriches soil without commercial fertilizers, helps increase yields of superb vegetables, and converts waste that would go to the landfill into garden gold. But what are you getting into when you start down the composting path?
I almost failed high school chemistry myself, so I turned to the experts at Wasatch Community Gardens to help me get started. I wanted to see firsthand what I was getting myself into.
Walking into the garden at 800 South 600 East, I was awed by the gorgeous flowers, ripe tomatoes (which I got to sample – yum) and plentiful herbs. Maddy Corey and Susan Finlayson, the garden's composting experts, showed me how easy composting can be, because everything I need is already in my garbage can.
Yard trimmings and food waste are the second largest contributor to landfills, after paper. Removing compostable materials can cut 24% from landfill waste. If you want to reduce your eco-footprint, this is a giant step that creates payoffs, not sacrifices.
Using compost eliminates the need for chemical fertilizers to promote higher yields of agricultural crops. It can even remediate soils contaminated by hazardous waste and, according to the EPA's composting website, capture and destroy industrial volatile organic chemicals in contaminated air.
How do I start?
You can make a compost bin from three wood pallets, one for the back and one on each side. Tie or nail the pallets together, and voilà you have a bin. "This is my favorite type of bin," said Finlayson. (Need some pallets? Call the Catalyst office-we have a few to spare.) If you have unlimited space and time, you can compost without a bin. Most of us do better with a bin.
If carpentry isn't your thing, Recycle Utah in Park City sells simple and economical bins starting at $12. Usually toward springtime you will find them at garden centers, hardware stores and even at CostCo.
It turns out you need to color-code the waste materials that go into your compost bin. "I think the mistake most people make when first starting their compost pile is not getting the right ratio of browns to greens," said Finlayson.
"Browns" include dead leaves, twigs, branches, weeds, or dried grass clippings. If you don't have any of these, you can use purchased straw. "Greens" are fresh leaves and grass clippings, kitchen scraps from vegetables, fruits and coffee grounds including the filter.
You need to have equal weights of brown and green materials. A bag of dried grass clippings weighs much less then the same size bag of fresh grass clippings, so you would need two bags of the brown to equal one green.
Place your bin in a shady area of your yard; you don't want your pile to get too much sun. Start with a six-inch layer of brown material, then a three-inch layer of green, followed by a shovel or two of soil or finished compost, to ensure the correct nutrients. Break large items like branches or twigs into smaller pieces. Add your food scraps. Next add just enough water to dampen the pile.
You will want to turn your pile with a shovel or pitchfork between once a week to once a month. The more you turn your pile the faster you get usable compost. Water the pile regularly to keep it damp, but not drippy; be careful not to overwater.
Composting like gardening will require some patience; think of composting like a new art, it will take some practice.
After a few days, if you have the proper ratio, your pile will start to generate heat. Take your pile's temperature by sticking a thermometer in it. Compost thermometers are about 20 inches long and can be purchased at garden centers such as Western Garden in Salt Lake. The pile's internal temperature needs to reach 140° F. Otherwise, your pile could be rotting, which is usally indicated by a bad smell. If your pile isn't hot enough, check your ingredients, their proportion, moisture, and how often you're turning it, and adjust accordingly.
After your compost pile has done its job for about one to four months, you will see the rich, dark brown color of usable compost emerge. This finished product is called humus. Don't get your pita chips out, this one's pronounced hyoo-mus, not hummus. When the humus has the consistency of soil, it is ready to use. Gather this rich material and shake it through a sifter (purchased or made from two-by-fours and hardware cloth) to remove rocks and twigs.
As winter approaches, don't worry about your pile, you don't even need to cover it. Keep adding your browns and greens and just let the pile sit; it will be ready for you to start turning it again in February or March.
Once you have your finished compost, you can add it to your garden, flowers and shrubs. Work a half-inch of finished compost into the top six inches of the soil. For potted plants, mix 20% finished compost with potting soil. If you are just starting a garden, use soil from your yard and mix this with your finished compost. Now you can sit back and watch your plants grow, knowing they are getting more nutrients and you are helping the planet.
If you live in an apartment and don't have room for an out door compost pile, Recycle Utah also sells indoor composting bins. The recommended ratios are the same as for the outdoor compost bin. A well-kept compost pile, indoors or outdoors, won't attract pests or rodents and won't smell bad. If you have more food waste than your composter holds, you can keep a bag in your fridge or freezer, saving your scraps until you are ready to use them.
While making my favorite chicken and black bean salad the other night I started my food waste bag. After chopping all my veggies, I had about a pound of greens just waiting for their browns. An added bonus was in the morning my kitchen didn't smell like a rotting garbage can. And as I made my morning coffee I simply tossed in my coffee grounds and filter and placed it back in the fridge. In the first week I began composting, I took out my trash half as often.
Here's a heads up – beginning in March 2008, Salt Lake City residents can opt for curbside pickup of their yard trimmings. Property owners can sign up starting September 1 at www.slcwaste.com. A mailer went out last month to notify property owners of this service.
Starting a new project can be daunting, but I've found when it's also for a great cause like helping our planet, I have no excuse not to do it, and besides, it feels good. Not to mention I might actually keep some plants alive with my new special ingredient.
To see a live demonstration Wasatch Community Gardens will hold a composting workshop November 3. Call 359-2658 to sign up early, this workshop always fills.
So what exactly can you put in your pile?
"Pet hair is definitely a good choice to put in your compost pile," says Maddy Corey of Wasatch Community Gardens. Yes, you can compost pet hair and even human hair! It makes my two longhair cats even more lovable.
Along with hair, you can throw in coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, shredded cotton and wool rags, vacuum cleaner lint, manure, egg shells, fruit and vegetable waste, fireplace ashes, grass clippings, discarded house plants and cut flowers, leaves, nut shells, sawdust, wood chips, and untreated yard trimmings.
Leave out dairy products, eggs (shells are okay), diseased or insect-ridden plants, fats, oils, meat, fish bones and scraps, dog and cat feces including soiled litter, yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides, and black walnut leaves, shells, or twigs. These items my contain substances that could harm plants or attract pests, rodents and flies.
For more information
Wasatch Community Gardens: 359-2658
EPA's web page on composting: www.epa.gov/compost/
Recycle Utah: 435-649-9698, www.recycleutah.org;