Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Composting

This is part of a letter I wrote to my dad, to help him figure out composting basics. I've had to learn as I teach.
______________________________
Let's open up with a quote from Journey to Forever's (http://journeytoforever.org/) guide to making good compost:

"Garden guides often describe composting as "nature's way" of recycling. Not so -- you just don't ever find large amounts of organic matter with the correct carbon-nitrogen ratio, water content and aeration carefully piled up by bears or gorillas working away in the forests with a compost fork and a watering-can, leaving it cooking away at high temperatures and emitting jets of steam. Nature doesn't make compost. Nature mulches."

By composting, we humans can catalyze the creation of humus, which makes the clayey soil of the Cincinnati area more fluffy and workable. Adding good compost to your garden prevents a lot of problems that growers who rely on industrially produced fertilizers are always wrestling with, like plants that poop out after their liquid fertilizers leach from the soil.

All kinds of groovy organisms live in good compost. New York City seems like an inbred backwater compared to the thousands upon thousands of micro and macro organism species fighting the good fight in a good compost. GOOD COMPOST kills human pathogens and weed seeds, because it gets really really hot.

So how do we get this alchemy going? Well, for the compost to be a healthy community of diverse individuals, we need to create a balanced environment for them to exist in. Here's what I know.

There needs to be an approximately 25:1 ratio, by weight, of Carbon-rich to Nitrogen-rich materials. The Carbon-rich materials are typically BROWN looking, examples being dried leaves, wood chips and straw. You’ve raked a lot of leaves and put them in piles, as I recall. Those piles come to my mind as a possibly plentiful BROWN source, which you’ll need to add to your compost as you add the GREENS, which include kitchen scraps, grass clippings, and basically anything that’s fresh and therefore rich in Nitrogen. It may sound counterintuitive, but manure is counted as a green, because it’s high in Nitrogen.

Too much Green, and your compost will smell like stale piss. Too much Brown, and your compost pile will just sit there, like yokels who think their weather is “too cold” to compost. (It very rarely is, if you are managing it well.)

Got it? You need more old brown stuff than grass clippings.

To start this process, I want you to get at least 6 bales of straw, and stack them two high in a “U” shape. Situate this sculpture somewhere that’s shady, so the compost doesn’t dry out and need watering much, and somewhere that’s convenient to your kitchen. Scrape the grass from the site, and expose the soil to where the bottom of the pile will be to allow the earth worms in. This straw bale U will keep your pile insulated and tidy.

You’ll take your kitchen scraps out to the pile, put ‘em out and say “O damn, I need to put some browns into this” and mix leaves in with the greens using a pitchfork.

To start this ball rolling, start setting greens and browns in separate piles and get a couple cublic feet together. The browns are dryer than the greens, so by volume, the ratio is like 3:2 browns to greens. Mix these little piles together, and give a good sprinkle of kelp powder into the mix. This, or some other natural source of micronutrients, will be a beneficial addition once in a while.

I want you to turn this tile once a week, if you can. With no turning or management but proper ratios, the compost will finish after a year, or 2 at max. This winter, put a tarp over the compost, and continue to turn it once a week.

Here’s a partial list of what goes in the brown and green categories, copy and pasted. I’m eager to hear a report back. Love you,

--
Badger Johnson
noblesavagery.blogspot.com

Type of Material
Use it?
Carbon/ Nitrogen
Details

Algae, seaweed and lake moss
Yes
N
Good nutrient source.

Ashes from coal or charcoal
No
n/a
May contain materials bad for plants.

Ashes from untreated, unpainted wood
Careful
Neutral
Fine amounts at most. Can make the pile too alkaline and suppress composting.

Beverages, kitchen rinse water
Yes
Neutral
Good to moisten the middle of the pile. Don't over-moisten the pile.

Bird droppings
Careful
N
May contain weed seeds or disease organisms.

Cardboard
Yes
C
Shred into small pieces if you use it. Wetting it makes it easier to tear. If you have a lot, consider recycling instead.

Cat droppings or cat litter
No
n/a
May contain disease organisms. Avoid.

Coffee ground and filters
Yes
N
Worms love coffee grounds and coffee filters.

Compost activator
Not required, but ok.
Neutral
You don't really need it, but it doesn't hurt.

Cornstalks, corn cobs
Yes
C
Best if shredded and mixed well with nitrogen rich materials.

Diseased plants
Careful
N
If your pile doesn't get hot enough, it might not kill the organisms, so be careful. Let it cure several months, and don't use resulting compost near the type of plant that was diseased.

Dog droppings
No
n/a
Avoid.

Dryer lint
Yes
C
Compost away! Moistening helps.

Eggshells
Yes
O
Break down slowly. Crushing shells helps.

Fish scraps
No
n/a
Can attract rodents and cause a stinky pile.

Hair
Yes
N
Scatter so it isn't in clumps.

Lime
No
n/a
Can kill composting action. Avoid.

Manure (horse, cow, pig, sheep, goat, chicken, rabbit)
Yes
N
Great source of nitrogen. Mix with carbon rich materials so it breaks down better.

Meat, fat, grease, oils, bones
No
n/a
Avoid.

Milk, cheese, yogurt
Careful
Neutral
Put it deep in the pile to avoid attracting animals.

Newspaper
Yes
C
Shred it so it breaks down easier. It is easy to add too much newspaper, so recycle instead if you have a lot. Don't add slick colored pages.

Oak leaves
Yes
C
Shredding leaves helps them break down faster. They decompose slowly. Acidic.

Sawdust and wood shavings (untreated wood)
Yes
C
You'll need a lot of nitrogen materials to make up for the high carbon content. Don't use too much, and don't use treated woods.

Pine needles and cones
Yes
C
Don't overload the pile. Also acidic and decomposes slowly.

Weeds
Careful
N
Dry them out on the pavement, then add later.

Sod
Careful
N
Make sure the pile is hot enough, so grass doesn't continue growing.

1 comment:

Hakim Baker said...

Hmmm... well... we threw everything into a pile for a few years, then waited a couple years, and this Spring we planted taters in the big pile of rich dirt it became.

We also have a worm bin in the basement, which is awesome. Except we found out they can only eat their weight in compost in a day, so eventually we had to stop throwing stuff in there and give them a chance to catch up. Shoulda gotten more worms. But there's lots in there now!

If worm composting, be sure to get a kind of worm--like red wigglers--that eats fresh stuff, not one that lives deeper in the soil and eats only dirt.

It's funny, I thought composting was revolutionary until I read The One-Straw Revolution by Fukuoka, whose method doesn't even require compost piles. That quote is right on about how "nature mulches"!

One-Straw kicks ass. Super-highly recommended. Like daoist permaculture.