Straight outta compost, part 2

Odysseus had his famous voyage back to Ithaca because he refused to stop and ask for directions, Lewis & Clark took a left out of St. Louis and arrived at the Pacific, Livingston went to Africa and found the source of some river, and I began composting. All are journeys of acute discovery, great trial, and hard fought victory. The only difference between them is that their journeys have finished while for me, in the words of JRR “Cottage Garden” Tolkien, “…the road goes ever on and on…”

In my last post, I began the origin story of my adventures in composting. However, since it was starting to approach the length of a James Joyce novel, I converted it into a two-part post. When I stopped, I had listed four lessons I had learned in my experience in kitchen composting. As a brief recap, I use a Utopia brand 1.3 gallon stainless steel counter-top kitchen compost bin as well as Oggi Eco-Liner pail liners. Please see the previous post for links to each product.

These have served their purposes well enough, but as I researched the nutrient needs of specific plants and how they could be met through natural means, I realized that I would need to have a larger bin to compost the materials. Furthermore, I learned that there are some kitchen scraps that can negatively impact the composting process.

More coffee and walking on egg shells. I have come to learn that there is a whole sector of the American economy dedicated to producing coffee memes on the internet. To an outside observer, such as someone from another planet, or even stranger, a decaf drinker, the impression they would form about America is that we would cease to function if all the coffee suddenly disappeared. This is entirely true. Funnily enough, certain plants need their coffee too, but not in the large quantities of the average American. Acid loving plants and shrubs like rhododendrons (including azaleas) and camellias, as well as lily of the valley, can benefit from spent coffee grounds. (There is tangential evidence that coffee grounds can cause hydrangeas to change the color of their blooms, but I cannot personally verify this.)

The above is not an exhaustive list and is shorter than what you might find on other websites. According to some of the sites I visited, coffee grounds are as versatile as manure when it comes to gardening – plants can’t get enough. It turns out that this isn’t complete true. What I have realized is that you, and you might want to sit down for this one, can’t trust everything you read on the internet. I read that sprinkling coffee grounds regularly on tomato and pepper plants produces an abundance of harvest, that adding copious amounts to compost gives it an extra boost, and that using it in worm farms (more on vermiculture in a later post) is beneficial because worms love coffee. This is only true in the sense that it is false. Caffeine can actually inhibit growth, kill good bacteria in the soil, and kill worms. So it is best to use spent grounds sparingly.

However, unlike coffee grounds, eggshells may actually help fertilize your plants.

Eggshells contain a small amount of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium, all of which are beneficial to plants such as tomatoes, peppers, squash and zucchini, and eggplants.

PROFESSIONAL GARDENING TIP: Eggshells break down slowly in the soil and in a composter, so the best way to use them is to first remove the yolk and albumin by cracking the shells, then rinsing, drying, and crushing the shells; merely buying a dozen eggs and placing them around plants is both ineffective and is known to attract herds of brightly attired, basket-carrying children.

After emptying the shells, and enjoying a delicious omelet, scrambled eggs, or eggs sunny-side-up, wash the shells and let them air dry. Then crush them, either by hand or with a pestle, and voila, breakfast is served (for your plants or compost pile, that is). I have seen some discussion as to whether it is better to bury the eggshells or merely sprinkle them around the base of the plant. I use the sprinkle method because it is simple and quick; hence it is… follow me closely here… over easier.

Orange you curious about citrus? George Orwell was not known for his expertise in sustainable victory gardening, but a line from one of his books (Animal Farm – I recommend it) is worth considering at this point: all kitchen scraps are beneficial, but some are more beneficial than others. The point is, while there is some inherent value in composting leftover fruit and veg, there are certain scraps that should be composted in moderation. I am specifically referring to citrus. Citrus fruit are high in a weak organic acid (aka citric acid) that has many uses, including adding flavor to soft drinks and as a surprisingly effective all purpose cleaner. Citrus fruit can also be used to repel and/or kill several insects, such as certain spiders, fleas, and ants. And that is where caution overlaps with the benefits in the Venn diagram of composting – much like coffee grounds, too much citrus in the compost pile can eliminate the helpful bacteria, worms, and insects needed to properly break down the organic matter into compost. Therefore, citrus can be considered beneficial in a manner similar to the federal government – it has its uses, but too much involvement will only make the situation worse.

Now we turn to a controversial topic in the cut throat world of competitive composting, one that has turned best friends into arch enemies and arch enemies into best friends: meat.

Specifically, should meat be included in a compost pile. The short answer is: no. That was simple…but not really. There are two different questions to be considered: 1. Can meat scraps be included in a compost pile, and 2. Should meat scraps be included in your compost pile? The answer to the first question is “yes,” meat scraps can be included in a compost pile. It is natural organic matter and can therefore be broken down by bacteria into compost. However, the answer to Q2 is more complicated. While meat can be composted, there are some issues that arise as a result.

  1. As meat breaks down, it will begin to smell. In fact, it can get quite rank and noticeable. Your neighbors may not appreciate your hard work if the smell of rotting meat is waiting to greet them whenever they walk out of their houses.
  2. That smell will not only attract your neighbor’s attention, it will also attract the attention of pests: rats, raccoons, dogs, foxes, coyotes, etc. When they come, not only will they wreck your compost pile as they dig through looking for that delicious buffet you were advertising, but they can be bring diseases along with them.
  3. Lastly, as meat breaks down, it can provide the ideal temperature for harmful bacteria, such as E. coli, to grow. A compost pile would have to get very hot for a sustained period of time in order to kill harmful bacteria, and most backyard efforts do not reach those temperatures. Even worse, E. coli can live for up to two years and could theoretically contaminate the fruit and veg you are trying to grow with the aforementioned compost.

For the backyard and amateur gardener and amateur homesteader, it is probably best to avoid using meat scraps in the compost pile.

Product. Lastly, I want to say a word about the outdoor compost bin I chose to assist me in my compost production: the Envirocycle Mini-Composter. Billing itself as “The Cutest Composter in the World,” in the US it currently is available in two colors, pink and black. Recalling the words of Wesley Snipes in Passenger 57

I went with black. As of this writing, I am still making my first load of compost. Therefore, a complete review will be forthcoming. However, suffice it to say that it was easy to set up because it came fully assembled. All I had to do was position it in my yard and begin filling it. As long as I remember to rotate it three times every third day, which to be honest hasn’t always happened on schedule, it doesn’t require much attention. There is an option to collect the “compost tea” in the base, which I have been doing this round. The downside is that the base fills pretty quickly and I have had to empty it. When emptying it I was careful to mix it with water because, while the collection is referred to as compost tea, it is very concentrated and needs diluting. All things considered, though, it is very low tech and easy to use. I am pleased with selection so far.

For those of you who are still with me, thank you so much for reading my story of composting. Thank you even more for those of you who are reading and following my blog. If you haven’t already, would you consider liking my posts and following my blog? I hope to add more features and content in the current weeks and months. My desire is to mix information, humor, and always make my content worth the time you invest in reading it. Also, feel free to drop a note and say “Hi.” Thank you again.