Can I just tell you how magical it seems to me that you can take vegetables and turn them into really awesome fertilizer for… vegetables? We have awful soil quality, in Colorado. Our soil is mostly clay mixed with some sand. It seems largely devoid of nutrients, and when paired with our unstable weather patterns (yes, there will be snow in May, just no telling how far into May it will go. Yes, it could snow again as soon as Labor Day, in the metro area, or it could be mostly lovely well into December,though there will be hard freezes in there, make no mistake. It could also be 100 degrees in mid-June, we could be dry all summer or have a stretch of unseasonably cold rainy weather. There will be hail. Nobody, including the local meteorologists, know for sure, from day to day.) it means gardening here is no joke.
That you can take your grass clippings or your old newspapers, mix them with some water and your vegetable peelings, put them somewhere dark and warm and (with time) come back to find a nutrient-dense soil feels like full-on magic to me. And I get really woo-woo about it. If I’m making a celebratory meal, maybe for guests, and I expect us to enjoy the food and the conversation and be joyful for all of it? I really super want to compost the scraps from that meal. It’s superstition, I know, but I feel like I want to grow things from the scraps of all that abundance and happiness. Like it’s a virtuous cycle that will bring more joy and abundance.
This is a quick and dirty primer, but there are a ton of great resources to get you up and running online just a Google search away. It’s relatively straightforward, once you know what you’re doing— Mother Nature does this without our help pretty much all the time— but it’s nice to keep useful things out of the landfills.
I first did it with galvanized pails, into which I drilled some holes for oxygen, topped with clay pot saucers and stacked. You’d think you wouldn’t want air-holes, because decaying food scraps smell, but oxygen is an important part of this process. You want the lids partly to contain the smell and keep from drawing scavengers like mice. The saucers functioned as lids and they also caught the “compost tea” water that runs off during decay. Compost tea can be a great interim fertilizer for your garden.
You combine two categories of things— browns and greens. Browns might be dead leaves, or grass clippings, but you can also use newspaper, etc. I get most of my browns when I clear out my garden at the end of fall— the dried out remains of everything that grew can be set aside for composting. Greens are things like coffee grounds, egg shells, vegetable peelings— I’ve got a bag of cherries that’s aging not so gracefully in my fridge, because I was disappointed with the quality. If there are bad spots on the cherries or there’s a bit of mold on it, throw it into the compost. Don’t include anything with an animal component— compost is strictly vegan, unless you do it with worms (I haven’t, but I’ve heard good things.) Also, don’t include anything diseased or with seeds that you don’t want to grow next year. I am careful not to compost any weeds, for that reason.
You’re striving for a roughly equal amount of each. As you combine these two things, a chemical reaction starts to happen and they start to break each other down. You can hasten the process by adding heat [I put my composters in a sunny spot] (though composting actually generates heat, as the greens and browns help each other decay and release stored energy.) It’s amazing to me, but browns? Don’t decay quickly, on their own. I have a whole heap of grass clippings from the previous owner (I use a mulching mower), and you’d think it would be breaking down over time, but it’s infinitely slower, on its own. You have to add greens in there, to generate the chemical reaction. If you stir it over time, you incorporate more oxygen and the process moves even faster. If you have too many greens, your pile just reeks. Too many browns, and you’ve got sticks, not dirt. But if you can balance it, eventually, it turns into nutrient dense, non-smelly dirt. (If it still smells, or is generating heat, it’s not done. Don’t use it on your plants, because the heat from the decaying matter can literally burn your plants.)
Now that I’ve got an actual, fenced yard, I bought a double compost tumbler. One of the difficult things about composting is that at a certain point, you have to stop adding things and just let it “cook,” but that means throwing out all the stuff you’re used to adding to the compost, until it’s done. That can be frustrating for someone like me who would rather continue a good habit than try to restart it, so a double composter lets you build up a batch of compost, then let it cook while you build up another batch of compost. When the first batch is done, you can start using it in the garden, then start over again.
You don’t, in fact, even need a container, and you definitely don’t need a fancy double-tumbler like I bought, to get started. As I mentioned, the previous owner of my place just built a pile in the back yard. I’d say try it out on the cheap, if you can, and see if it’s your kind of thing. If not, you’re not out much— some things you would have thrown out anyway. If so, my argument for composting in a more enclosed space is that it does draw curious scavengers. A compost pile provides a warm place for mice, as well as some food, and can draw other things, like raccoons. Because in my yard, the clippings pile is close to my primary garden bed, I found myself fighting the critters for my garden produce last year, and I definitively lost that fight. I’m not much for raccoons, in real life— they’re kind of nasty and aggressive. One of the points of the double compost tumbler, for me, is the elimination of the compost pile, because the tumbler is rodent-inaccessible.
If you decide to use the pail method I started with, know that the composting breaks down the clay pot saucers over time. It took years, but they were the part of that system that failed over time.