The Daily Dirt

Post-Conference Post: “Composting, Nature’s Balancing Act”

Kerry Shay of Savannah Victory Gardens and Andy Schwartz led a session called “Composting: Nature’s Balancing Act” at the 17th Annual Georgia Organics Conference on Feb. 22. Here’s what they talked about!

Composting is beneficial for a number of reasons. It  builds soil and contributes to fertility. The immediate beneficial side effect of composting is rich organic matter, or humus, filled with microorganisms and nutrients that are great for your vegetables, or flowers, or lawn. This can save you a lot of money, by eliminating your need to buy commercial topsoils and fertilizers. It’s also a great educational experience for both kids and adults—composting teaches you how to feed the food that feeds you.

Perhaps most importantly, though, composting allows us to divert a portion of our waste stream. Landfills are 21 percent food waste, 15 percent paper/paper-board, 9 percent yard trimmings, and 8 percent wood, for a total of 53 percent potentially compostable material. More than half of the material that goes into a landfill could be diverted in this way!

Landfills are an anaerobic system. The waste is compacted to make room for more waste, which means that these materials are not decomposing at the rate that they could be in an aerobic system, so they are releasing methane gas into the air.

There are a few pretty common misgivings people have that keep them from composting. Many think that compost will smell bad, but composting is an aerobic method of decomposition. Bad smells come from anaerobic decomposition. If it smells bad, you are doing it wrong.

People also believe that composting will attract rodents and pests. While this is possible, the chances are severely lessened if you do not attempt to compost meat, bones, or animal products. It is also helpful to create a barrier around your compost.

Another worry people have is that composting will take too much time. It does take some time to set up, but maintenance doesn’t have to take much longer than taking out the trash, which you will be doing less often now that you are composting.


Hot Composting
If you are new to composting, Hot Composting is a great place to start. To Hot Compost you need Air, Water, Brown Materials (Carbon), and Green Materials (Nitrogen). If you are new to composting, you will want to avoid meat, bones, and animal products. Hot Composting relies on a chemical reaction that takes place between your Brown Materials (Carbon) and your Green Materials (Nitrogen). You want to keep those materials at about a 30:1 ratio. It doesn’t have to be exact, but keep in mind that that ratio does yield the best results.

  • Some good Carbon Materials include:
    • Straw
    • Wood shavings
    • Dry leaves
    • Newspaper with soy-based ink
  • Some good nitrogen materials include
    • Grass trimmings and other plant clippings
    • Vegetable waste

While building your compost bin, keep in mind that the compost “cooks” best in the middle, so a bin that is a least a yard in diameter is preferable. Make sure your compost is going to get the air flow it needs. Also, make sure your bin is built from materials that are not going to leech chemicals into your compost. Heat-treated pallets are a great way to construct your compost bin; they allow air-flow, and they don’t leech chemicals. Be sure to put a heavy layer of cardboard at the bottom of your bin, so that grass doesn’t grow up through it. Layer the carbon with the nitrogen, and keep it wet but not soaked. Turn your compost at least once a week to keep it healthy.

For vermiculture, you will need to buy specifically Red Wigglers, but they aren’t expensive and you can get them at any bait shop. You probably don’t need many. A pound of Red Wigglers can eat about a pound of vegetable waste a day.

Make sure the worms have enough drainage – you want to keep them moist, but too much or too little water can kill them. Line the bottom of your bin with rocks to provide additional drainage. After the rocks, add plenty of leaf mulch to your bin, because Red Wigglers are litter-dwellers. Also add wood mulch for structure and airflow.

Once you established your bin, feed your worms vegetable scraps from your kitchen – again, it is probably wise to stay away from meat, bones, and other animal products. Worms are quick composters, and their castings are really, really good for your garden.

There are several tumblers on the market, but they share a similar flaw: water, once in, is hard to get out. Your compost can become very wet and heavy, and balance can be hard to regain. Many people choose tumblers because they perceive them as being easier, but if you want something easy, Hot Composting may actually be a better bet in the long run. However, tumblers can be a very efficient way to compost. If you want to compost quickly, this may be a good option.

Lasagna Gardening is essentially composting right in your garden. You should lay down a cardboard barrier to prevent grass from shooting up into your garden and soak it thoroughly. You then layer Carbon and Nitrogen in a ratio close to 30:1, as you would in Hot Composting. This will provide your garden with rich organic material all year long. You top this with a few inches of compost to provide a growing medium for your plants, and seedless mulch to protect the compost. No turning. Just letting Mother Nature provide your garden with nutrients all year long.

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