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Composting 101: Transforming Food Waste into Gardening Gold

June 26, 2024

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Composting 101: Transforming Food Waste into Gardening Gold

The Compost Conundrum

Last year, I made a simple DIY compost bin following a tutorial, and eagerly started collecting our kitchen scraps. Even with all the shredded leaves, bark, and dirt I added, regularly turning the pile with a shovel, and endless Googling, I just couldn’t quite make it work. After a few months, I ended up with a slimy, fly-infested box of compost failure. Basically, I loved the idea of easy backyard composting, but the reality didn’t quite live up to my expectations.

After some more research and experimentation, I realized that my initial compost bin was just one part of a three-step backyard composting process. A DIY bin is a great place for the compost to cook and decompose, but I couldn’t keep adding new waste to the top. The materials needed focused time to work together with the heat and air before they’d be ready to add back into the garden.

Let me share the simple three-step system I discovered that has made backyard composting a breeze – transforming our food waste into gardening gold. With a little planning and a lot less trial and error, you can be on your way to creating nutrient-rich compost for your CSA garden or yard.

Step 1: The Kitchen Scrap Collection

The composting process starts right in the kitchen. After a few months of regularly saving our food scraps, we invested in a cute countertop compost bin. This allows us to keep the organic smells down and only empty it into the yard once a week or so. I line the bin with 100% compostable bags for easy emptying.

When adding items to the bin, keep in mind that anything thick or woody, like kale stems or onion ends, will break down faster if you chop them up first. I also make sure to crush eggshells so they decompose more easily.

And a quick note on what not to compost – steer clear of anything with oils, fats, or other additives. Those don’t break down well and can make your compost smelly and gross. Stick to regular fruit and veggie scraps, coffee grounds, shredded paper, and the like.

Step 2: The Outdoor Scrap Bin

Once the indoor scrap bin is full, I take the kitchen waste out to my outdoor scrap bin – the key step I hadn’t seen before in other composting guides. This 5-gallon bucket acts as a holding area where I can collect a month’s worth of scraps before they’re ready for the next step.

The reason this works so well is that you don’t want to be constantly adding new waste to your active compost bin. The materials need some focused time to break down together before you layer them in. That slimy, stinky bucket of scraps is actually doing important work!

Step 3: The Compost Lasagna

When my 5-gallon bucket is full and the contents are nicely broken down, it’s time to make a layered compost pile in the DIY bin. This is where the magic really happens.

You see, the compost bin needs a balance of “brown” and “green” materials to decompose properly. The browns are your carbon-rich stuff like dried leaves, shredded paper, or wood chips. The greens are your nitrogen-rich materials like fruit and veggie scraps, grass clippings, or coffee grounds.

I’ve found that adding a bit of compost starter, like some pine shavings and chicken poop from a local coop, really helps kick-start the whole process. Then it’s just a matter of layering the browns and greens, giving it a good stir every few days, and letting nature do its thing.

After 4-6 weeks of regular mixing and turning, that slimy, stinky pile starts to transform into rich, earthy compost – my own little batch of “black gold” ready to work its garden-boosting wonders.

The Benefits of Black Gold

Composting is so much more than just a way to get rid of food scraps. It’s a powerful tool for improving soil health, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and recycling valuable nutrients.

First and foremost, compost is an excellent soil amendment that can work wonders for your CSA garden or landscaping. It contains essential plant nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, plus micronutrients like calcium, magnesium, and iron.

But compost does more than just feed your plants – it also helps improve the soil’s structure and water-holding capacity. Research has shown that just a 1% increase in soil organic matter (like compost) can help soil hold an extra 20,000 gallons of water per acre. That’s a game-changer for water-intensive agriculture.

And let’s not forget the climate benefits. When food waste ends up in a landfill, it decomposes anaerobically and releases methane – a potent greenhouse gas. But when you compost that same waste, it undergoes aerobic decomposition, which produces far less methane. In fact, San Francisco’s large-scale composting program has helped avoid over 90,000 metric tons of carbon emissions annually – the equivalent of taking 20,000 cars off the road.

Compost Connoisseur Confessions

I’ll admit, I’m a bit of a compost nerd these days. I’ve been at it for over 40 years, and I’ve tried just about every method under the sun. From fancy rotating compost tumblers to simple backyard piles, I’ve seen it all.

One of my favorite tricks is the hugelkultur raised bed – a layered garden bed with a base of decomposing wood that slowly releases nutrients and moisture into the soil. It’s like having your own personal compost factory hidden underground.

I’ve also experimented with year-round composting, even in the frigid Canadian winters where my sister lives. The key is to just toss those food scraps right onto the outdoor pile and let them freeze, thaw, and compost at their own pace. It might not be the fastest method, but it still gets the job done.

And you know what they say – one person’s trash is another’s treasure. I’m always on the lookout for new sources of compost materials, whether that’s begging pumpkins from neighbors after Halloween or accepting food scraps from friends and family. The more diverse the ingredients, the richer the final product.

Overcoming Composting Challenges

Of course, backyard composting isn’t without its challenges. One of the biggest issues I see is attracting unwanted pests like raccoons or skunks, especially if you’re composting meat, dairy, or other smelly items.

The solution? Stick to plant-based scraps and bury them in your yard instead of putting them in an open compost bin. You can also try a dedicated “dog waste” compost bin if you need to deal with Fido’s leavings. Just be sure to keep that totally separate from your regular compost operation.

Another common problem is dealing with that dreaded compost “slime” – the slimy, smelly mess that can happen if your pile gets too wet or out of balance. The fix? Make sure you’ve got the right brown-to-green ratio, and don’t be afraid to add more dry, carbon-rich materials like shredded newspaper or leaves.

And finally, if you’re dealing with fruit flies or other pesky critters, try covering your compost bin with a tight-fitting lid or mesh screen. You can also bury your food scraps a few inches into the pile to deny those pests easy access.

The Circle of (Compost) Life

Composting may seem like a lot of work, but the benefits far outweigh the effort. Not only are you reducing your environmental impact and creating nutrient-rich soil for your garden, but you’re also reconnecting with that ancient cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

After all, what goes around, comes around. The food scraps you toss into your compost bin today will one day nourish the veggies and flowers you grow tomorrow. It’s a beautiful, never-ending loop – proof that with a little care and attention, our waste can truly become our most valuable resource.

So get out there, start composting, and watch your garden flourish. Who knows, you might even find yourself becoming a compost connoisseur like me. After all, there’s nothing quite like the joy of turning food waste into gardening gold.

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