Ooooh that smell, can’t you smell that smell? – Lynyrd Skynyrd
Growing up in the suburbs of Raleigh, I never imagined, not even in my wildest dreams, that one day the benefits and methods of composting would be a topic that I willingly contemplate during my leisure time. No, back in the ’80s, my wildest dreams often involved saving the Unites States from a Soviet invasion, either because they picked the wrong school (mine) to make their beachhead, or by thwarting a thermonuclear missile attack with my Epson PC, just as soon as the DOS disk had finished booting,
So, composting. I wasn’t unfamiliar with composting as a child. Our neighbors to the rear had an 8 foot diameter corrugated metal ring situated by the chain link fence that separated our yards. In it they would place the leaves and branches that had fallen from the trees, which was quite a lot because we had very woody yards. Looking back, I am not entirely certain they were composting as much as they were depositing their yard waste in a centralized location that “just so happened” to be next to our property.
Fast forward a few years. Ok, a few decades. Composting is now a subject that I am happy to spend several hours researching and considering now that my wife and I are working to transform our yard from the barren lot we bought into an oasis of plants and flowers. Why is composting now such a hot topic? We have learned over the past three years is that our soil is low on nutrients. I have previously stated that I am not interested in using too many chemicals for fertilization or pest control. Therefore my only options are natural ones. Ideally, I would purchase a cow or two and let them do their thing, but for some reason our neighborhood covenants do not permit them, so I have to acquire my manure from a third party. However, I recently learned that I am able to make as much of my own fertilizer as I want. What I discovered is that the more we eat, the more we are able to make.
What is compost? According to the website GreenMatters, compost is “simply decayed organic matter.” Therefore, compost is a natural part of the life cycle of the earth. Organic matter – leaves, trees, plants, etc. – sprout, grow, live, and ultimately die. As Genesis 3:19 puts it, “…return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you shall return.” Since the Fall, this has been the natural process of the earth.
Even suburbanites like myself are more familiar with compost than we realize. One of the rites of passage for teenagers, at least when I was growing up, was raking leaves and picking up pine cones in Autumn. Parents everywhere would implore their children to this task through pleading, bribery, or threats. Oftentimes all three methods would be used, and occasionally, or regularly in my case, they were used simultaneously. “BURWELL, FOR THE LAST TIME, WOULD YOU PLEASE GET OUT THERE AND RAKE THOSE LEAVES TO EARN YOUR ALLOWANCE OR YOU WON’T BE ALLOWED TO WATCH KNIGHT RIDER THIS WEEK!” was the refrain of my childhood. Yet however reluctant I was to rake in my own yard, I was more than happy to rake with my best friend in his yard and earn 10 cents for my efforts. This regularly drove my parents crazy.
Why do I mention this? Because after all the red, yellow, orange, and brown leaves were raked and relocated to the street curbs or the designated areas of the yard, something magical would happen: the leaves would start to decay. And as they decayed, they emitted the aroma of Autumn, that musky-sweet smell that calls up images of Trick-or-Treating, cooler weather, and the Great Pumpkin on television.
That smell that brings back fond memories and can transport you to another time and place, is compost.
What is composting? Composting is merely the intentional act of making compost. It is taking organic matter, and using a combination of aeration, internal heat, and time, to produce compost. When done correctly, this compost is rich in nutrients and will serve as a natural fertilizer for gardens and landscapes. According to the EPA, other benefits of compost include enriching the soil, retaining moisture, suppressing plant diseases and pests, encouraging the production of beneficial bacteria and fungi, and many more! It really is a no-brainer, even for the casual gardener.
Where to begin. For me, I wasn’t ready to start with a full sized composter. I wanted something easy and relatively cheap. I wanted to start right away. So I logged in to the internet and began my search. After only a few minutes of typing in Google and checking out websites, I stumbled across a YouTube channel that captured my attention and would not let me go. I was riveted. I watched every one of his eye opening videos. However, since those videos were of him being bitten and/or stung by various insects and then describing the pain, they didn’t help me in my quest to learn about simple composting.
Then I found this guy:
(This is Mark and his channel is Self Sufficient Me. Please consider subscribing and giving him a “Thumb’s Up”!)
He had me at G’day. What I learned by watching Mark, and other gardeners, is that the best, and certainly the easiest, place to start is with kitchen scraps. All the leftover or discarded fruits and vegetables, the uneaten scraps off the kids plates, the forgotten cabbage found at the back of the crisping drawer, can be turned into compost in several different ways. The easiest way is to bury it in the ground directly. I tried this a couple of places with mixed results. One place I noticed a positive change was when I buried some at our mailbox, where we have several kinds of daisies and Calendula officinalis or pot marigolds. The first year I buried the kitchen waste, 2019, the flowers were noticeably fuller and bloomed longer. This year I buried waste again and experienced similar results.
I quickly learned that collecting fruit and veggie scraps had unintended consequences. Not only did they begin to smell as they broke down, which was the goal after all, but they tended to attract flies. Since my “large-bowl-covered-by-a-paper towel” method was quickly turning our kitchen into a scene from “Lord of the Flies,” I decided to purchase a kitchen compost bin.
There are many varieties on the market, all of which have their relative strengths and weaknesses. Some are made from plastic, others are ceramic, and still others are stainless steel. Several sizes are available, ranging from 0.8 gallons to 9.5 gallons, but the average size ranges from 1.3 to 1.8 gallons. Styles vary, from counter-top models to sliding-drawer mounts. Many, though not all, have charcoal filters to help lessen the smell and control the fruit fly population. After considering different sizes, styles, and prices, I bought 1.3 gallon stainless steel counter-top model by Utopia. It came with two charcoal filters and was ready to use out of the box.
And use it we have. I was ignorant of how much we were throwing away until I started saving it. We purchased the kitchen compost bin in June 2019 and have since filled it multiple times a week. Lettuce ends, onion skins, entire bags of Brussels sprouts when my wife isn’t looking? Throw them in the composter. Egg shells, ripped up cardboard, and coffee grounds too. However, I soon learned a few things about kitchen composting:
- My wife and I had different ideas of where the composter should be placed. I thought near the sink, which is over the cabinet where our trash can is located, would be ideal. She thought otherwise because “that is a very visible location”. So after some discussion and compromise, we agreed that she was right and I was wrong. It now sits in a back corner of our counter.
- Stainless steel was a great choice, because the items starting breaking down quickly. Every time I emptied the composter, there was a good bit of liquid at the bottom. This is an important part of the composting process but it can be messy. The steel is very easy to clean and, after 14 months of use, is not rusting.
- The charcoal filters only do so much. They suppress the smell fairly well, but if they are not installed correctly, fruit flies can get in. This particular model takes some practice to get the filter in its slot. It was two or three or months before I realized that I had not been putting it in right.
- A biodegradable liner is a great addition. I ordered Oggi’s Eco-Liner Compost Pail Liners in September 2019 and haven’t had any problems in using them. They break down in our yard and our outdoor composter without any noticeable pieces or residue. My only qualm with them is when I leave them in the kitchen composter too long, or I have a large excess of liquids, as they begin to dissolve before I have removed them, but that should be expected.
To be continued…