Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Creating a Stink

“No! No! No!” I screamed silently in my head, scrunching my nose and staring down in disbelief at my compost bin…

Let me back up to the beginning. A few Fridays ago I had the afternoon off and took the opportunity to enjoy the weather and wander around my garden as it yawned out of hibernation. After making a few rounds gathering bundles of dead plants and old potting soil, I brought the offerings to my compost bin.

All winter I’ve been adding food waste to the bin, almost to the point where I didn’t know how much more he could take before spring (yes, my compost bin is male, don’t ask). I decided the weather was warm enough for the inaugural 2010 compost bin turning. A sort of opening day in my strange, little composting world.

I fetched my wingdigger compost turner out of the storage area and after shaking off the winter dust and cobwebs, I stabbed it unceremoniously into the middle of the pile. That’s when I felt it. The rather unpleasant wet squish warning me of what to expect next.

Screaming in my head and anticipating the worst, I slowly pulled the turner out of the pile and as I did a slight ammonia smell wafted in the air. I let out a sigh. Crisis averted. My pile was too wet but only starting to go anaerobic- you know, hospitable to the bad smelling, oxygen-hating, slow-composting cousins of the aerobic bacteria we want to encourage. A healthy compost bin has a sweet earthy smell.

In my determination to fit all my winter food scraps into my bin, I didn’t add enough brown ingredients like leaves. So as soon as the pile thawed, all the water from the food scraps and the overfilled bin with few airspaces meant the bad bacteria started to take over. I say “started” because if they had really taken over I would have smelled a sharp, nose-hair-curling, rotten egg stench.

So I saved the bin just in time (is there such a thing as a composting super hero?) and made sure to prod everywhere to really get the air into the pile. I also shredded up leaves and pushed those into the pile to fluff up the dense food waste. But don’t feel like you need some fancy dancy official tool to turn your compost. Prodding the bin with a pitchfork or shovel works or even just using a big stick to poke holes if nothing else. You can also slide your bin up off your pile, set it in a new spot, and shovel the compost back in to introduce air.

A week and a half after turning my pile, it already fell 4-6 inches which tells me it's rockin’ and rollin’. I plan to turn it again this Friday just because I derive a ridiculous amount of pleasure in seeing my bin heat up and start really working. You can turn your bin once a week or once a year, it’s really up to you, but the more you turn, the faster you will have finished compost. But beware. If you’re not a frequent turner and you add food scraps to the pile, keep one eye opened (or one nostril opened?) for an ammonia or rotten egg smell meaning your pile needs a little TLC.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Composting Tips for Frat Boys

It seems every time I host a party at my house, I wake up the next morning to a dozen half-finished beer bottles sprawled on coffee or end tables, tucked next to my couch, or dotting my backyard. Mostly just forgotten drinks or gross fruity beer castoffs that some adventurous soul paid too much for before realizing raspberries and beer don’t mix.

But I digress. This post isn’t about the slovenly housekeeping habits of my friends or misadventures in experimental beer tasting. It is, of course, about composting.

After I sigh and think what a waste it all is and how I am ever grateful for the BYOB policy, I am actually excited about the stale beer.

Yes, I am excited about the stale beer.

That’s because I will dump those half-drank ales and lagers right onto my compost pile. Beer not only composts but actually is a composting accelerator. Beer is a good source of nitrogen for your compost pile and the yeast in the beer feeds the beneficial bacteria in the pile. So stale brewskies are a great way to kick start your pile into action. Now you see why I get excited.

If you happen to be an amateur home-brewer, the spent grains from the home brewing process also compost well. Both the grains and the beer will add moisture to your bin just like adding water, so be sure to balance them with dry material like leaves, shredded paper, or those pizza boxes from the party torn into small pieces (sans pizza, of course). Oh, and I’ve learned from experience that you don’t want to add so much beer that your compost bin smells like a drunken pirate. Unless, obviously you like drunken pirates…and honestly, who doesn’t?

So I’ve found a great way to make use of the stale leftover beer (and that gross light beer someone left in my fridge- because I surely won’t be drinking it). Now if only the rest of the cleanup was this much fun.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

You Keep Worms Where?

Worm bin composting, or vermicomposting for us who like to feel smart using big words, is a compact alternative to backyard composting. Worm bins are small enough to fit under your sink, the bins don’t smell, and the worms will not escape. People pay big bucks for vermicompost (aka, worm poop) to use as a natural fertilizer but your worm bin will supply you with vermicompost for free in exchange for vegetable and fruit scraps. Worm bin composting is great for:
• Apartment or Condo Dwellers
• Offices
• People who prefer not to step outside in the winter
• People fond of exotic pets

Setting up a worm bin is easy. For a household of four to six people you need a bin about 1 ft x 2ft x 2ft. Plastic bins used for storage work great. Drill holes in the bottom and sides for ventilation and place a tray under the bin to catch any water that seeps through.

Next, gather four to six pounds of shredded paper and dead leaves to use as bedding. Soak the bedding in water to the consistency of a wrung out sponge. Remember a worm’s body is 75% water and they need a moist environment to survive (but they’re not big swimmers so don’t try to make an aquarium). Mix one cup of soil from outside with the bedding.

Finally, add the worms to their new home. You will only need a half pound of red worms to start. They multiply faster than rascally rabbits and soon you will have a pound of worms for every square foot. You can purchase locally produced red worms for $20 per pound through Alex McDuffie (mcduffie.alex@gmail.com).

Red worms used in vermicomposting have a voracious appetite and will eat half their weight in food scraps a day. When adding scraps start slow and increase as your worms multiply. Bury the food in the bedding to avoid gnats and fruit flies and place a cover on the bin to hold in moisture and block out light.

You can keep your bin any place that is convenient to add scraps- a closet, under the sink, in the garage, just don’t let them freeze or get above 90 degrees. We keep several vermicomposting bins in the backroom of our office and have received very few complaints (with the exception of our coworker Susan who just pretends the worms aren’t there).

In three to four months, your vermicompost will be ready to use. If you don’t want to pour out the compost and pick out the worms (oh kids, I have a new game to play…) consider adding fresh bedding and food to one side of the bin and waiting for all the worms to move over to their new digs. Then scoop out all the vermicompost and make sure you don’t pull out any stragglers (try not to release any of the red worms into the wild since they are not native). Vermicompost can be used as a soil amendment for houseplants or a top dressing on outdoor flower and vegetable beds.

For more tips on building a worm bin read the vermicomposting sections of our yardwaste at home handbook: http://www.hcdoes.org/SWMD/Residents/Yardwaste/YWatHome_08.pdf.