Compost: How to Make Good-Old Fashioned Dirt

Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 10.17.13 AMBy Pam Denholm

Last week in our newsletter, we wrote about a conference we attended on Climate change, and we shared some of the key takeaways: we still have time, we need a call to action, we need to regenerate, not just sustain, and everybody can help. We said we would give some practical projects in forthcoming newsletters, so that we can provide to tools to anyone who so desires, to participate. Many of you will already have employed these practices in your home, we encourage you to share the newsletter with a friend or neighbor, or perhaps implement one of these initiatives within your community: school, church, community garden etc.

Why compost? Well, we are losing topsoil at 2-4 tons per acre on cropland in the US – Mother Nature takes hundreds of years to create topsoil, but we can do it more quickly through composting. Our solution to this problem is thusly two-fold: we need to convert farming or organic methods that manage soil quality in our food system (vote with your dollars), and we need to do our bit at home. If each home in the U.S. had a compost bin, we would generate millions of tons of fertile dirt every year. So here’s how:

  1. Choose a Location and a Container – a good location is one that is not far from your house. Keep your pile in a shady area to prevent it from drying out. If you live in a city, think about investing in a closed bin to keep out unwanted critters and pests. You can use a trash barrel, a feed bin, or a three sided bin that gives you easy access. A three-sided bin is easy to make, all you need is three pallets, and some screws.
  2. Use a Recipe – Stick to a ratio of three parts brown to one part green, and add them in layers – whenever you add green material, cover it up with a good amount of brown (see key for reference). Your pile will reduce in volume by one third in approximately one week.
  3. Know What Not to Compost – no raw or cooked proteins (meats, cheeses, and fish). No bones, grains or bread, oils, pet poop (grazer poop is fine: bunnies, horses, goats etc but nothing from pets who have high protein diets like cats and dogs), no cat litter, diseased plants, chemically treated grass or plants. Weed are controversial – some people say don’t add them because seeds might survive and contaminate any area you spread your compost on, but it is safe to compost weeds that have not gone to seed.
  4. Add Oxygen and Moisture – Microorganisms in your compost pile need fresh air to live and function. You should ‘turn’ your compost pile one to three times per week (less in winter, thank goodness) by either rolling the drum, or inserting a pitchfork or metal bar into the bin and mixing it up a bit. The pile should always feel like a damp sponge. If it’s too dry, add some water or take off the bins cover in a rainstorm. If it’s too wet, add brown materials or take the bin’s cover off in nice weather to allow it to dry out.
  5. Finishing – It will take about a year for the process to finish. After five to seven months, you should start to see compost (new soil) forming.       This is a good time to turn your pile completely to give all materials a chance to be in the core of your pile where the heat is most concentrated. Around this time, you should stop adding materials and let your compost break down completely. This is a good time to start a new pile. You can sift your original pile when it looks like dirt.
  6. Apply Compost – Your compost should be full of plant growing nutrients. Compost can be mixed with existing soil to improve soil quality as a soil amendment, placed around the base of individual plants as a mulch, or added to a seed-starting mix. One handful of compost per vegetable plant is a good rule to go buy when starting your garden in the spring time.

 

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