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How Your Old Carrot Peels and Apple Cores Can Make You Healthier and Be Kind to the Planet Too
You might think that throwing carrot peels and apple cores in the trash has no effect because they will break down anyway. But even natural plant matter will last for years when sealed in a plastic bag and dumped in a landfill.
As a great example of community responsibility, the City of Seattle, WA offers free composting bins to all residents. This keeps over 800 million pounds of trash out of their landfills! Not only can you help divert your kitchen waste from landfill, but you can create rich, nutritious humus for your garden, whether it’s an acre or an old wine barrel on your patio.
WHY SHOULD I COMPOST?
o More than 21 million tons of food waste is generated in the United States each year. If this were composted, the greenhouse gas savings would be equivalent to taking more than 2 million cars off the road.
o You will add valuable nutrients to the soil and your garden will be healthier and your vegetables more nutritious for you and your family.
o You will save money by not having to buy garden soil and mulching materials, saving energy to transport these products to your store and to your garden.
WHAT IS COMPOST?
When organic materials such as leaves, plant food scraps, manure and garden waste decompose in a controlled environment (your compost bin), rich and fertile humus is created to improve and fertilize your garden soil.
Your plants are much healthier because:
o nutrients are added
o drainage is greatly improved if your soil is rich in clay
o if your soil is sandy, compost helps it retain water
If your compost pile is cool, worms and insects will find their way into it and help turn your waste into food for your garden. But it helps to establish the right conditions. Provide these friendly creatures with enough air, water and food, and they will become your garden’s best friends.
IS COMMERCIAL COMPOST THE SAME AS “HOME”?
Homemade compost is better for microbes and nutrient diversity, but bagged compost provides organic matter and some microbes. Be aware that composted manure may consist mostly of water.
If you have a large garden where the soil needs added nutrients, you may want to purchase inexpensive bags of composted manure or bulk compost from your local commercial composter, then add your own compost as needed.
If you are buying compost, remember that there are no labeling requirements for bagged compost. Grade A composted sewage sludge is probably the safest, as it is the only type of compost that requires testing for heavy metals and pathogens before it is approved for sale to the public. Manure is much more dangerous from a pathogen standpoint, as testing is not required.
WHAT IF I DON’T HAVE ENOUGH SPACE?
Even if you only have a small apartment balcony or back porch, you can compost in a plastic bin (about 18 liters or more). Drill or punch holes about an inch or two apart on all sides, bottom, and lid. Place it in another slightly larger and shallower bin (bins under the bed are suitable for this). Place some stones or bricks between the two to make room for air flow. Add your waste and shake the bin every few days. If you have room for two, you can add to one for several months, then stop adding and start the other. Shake it occasionally until it turns brown, crumbly and smells earthy. This compost can be used for small balcony planters or even for indoor plants if you don’t have space for a large garden.
WHAT DOES MY COMPOST NEED TO SUCCEED?
For excellent quality compost, mix high-nitrogen materials (such as clover, fresh grass clippings) and high-carbon materials (such as dried leaves and straw). Moisture is provided by rain and fresh kitchen scraps, but you may need to add water to keep it moist. Frequent turning or stirring of the pile provides oxygen.
Your compost needs to breathe:
Without sufficient air, your compost pile will break down, but more slowly… and it will smell a lot better! So make sure there is enough air space in your pile. Straw works great as it keeps the pile from getting mushy. If you don’t have access to thatch, break up any clumps and try turning it regularly with a shovel or garden fork to loosen it up.
Your compost should drink:
You want just enough moisture to lightly coat every particle in your pile, providing an ideal environment for thirsty microbes. It should be as moist as a wrung out towel. Wetter than that and it will start to stink. Generally, kitchen scraps will be moist enough, but if you’re adding dry leaves from the yard, you may want to moisten them slightly. If your pile is open to the weather, cover it with a tarp during rainy weather. Too much moisture can cause the temperature in the pile to drop and cause odors. Too little moisture prevents the pile from heating up and slows down the decomposition process. Check the moisture level in the compost pile every week and adjust it if necessary. Add water to increase humidity or add dry material to dry.
Your compost should eat:
Your friendly composting bugs have two food groups…and it’s always best to mix the two up if you can:
o Brown (dry) – these materials are high in carbon and include straw, dry leaves, wood chips or ash, peanut shells, pine needles, vegetable stems and shredded cardboard or newspaper (avoid colored paper and inks). You may want to moisten them a bit when you add them to the compost pile.
o Vegetables (wet) – are high in nitrogen and include kitchen scraps from fruit and vegetables, green leaves and grass clippings, tea bags, coffee grounds and even seaweed. Horse manure is great, but it is better if it is well aged. Check with your local barn.
Your compost should stay warm:
If you live in a cold climate, your compost pile will most likely go dormant during the winter. It will be in good shape as soon as the spring heat starts to warm it up again. The compost doesn’t need to be hot – 50% Fahrenheit is just fine.
You may consider hot composting (110 to 160 degrees F) because heat produces compost quickly (in weeks, not months) and kills most seeds and plant diseases. However, studies have shown that compost produced at high temperatures has less ability to control diseases in the soil. High heat can kill the beneficial bacteria needed to fight disease.
o Balance of fresh and dry: Compost piles with a ratio of one part fresh to two parts dry material break down the fastest. Add one garden fork of fresh material to the pile and fill it with two forks of dry material. Then mix them together.
o Size: Compost piles that measure at least 3 cubic feet (3 feet x 3 feet x 3 feet) heat up faster and break down faster.
o Start your compost pile: If you are just starting to create a compost pile, add a shovelful of high-quality garden soil to encourage microbial activity in your pile.
o Stirring: If possible, stir the compost once a week to move material from the outside of the pile. This prevents the pile from collapsing. (compaction reduces air flow and slows down decomposition)
o Does it smell?: Healthy compost smells like earth – if yours smells, it’s too wet. Turn it more often and add more dry matter to dry it out. When your compost is too wet, it deoxygenates your pile — which slows down the decomposition process and encourages anaerobic microorganisms to thrive…which increases the stench! It can also smell bad if your mix has too much garden scraps or kitchen scraps. Bury it deep into the compost and add more dry matter.
o When finished: Compost should be dark brown, earthy smelling and moist to the touch. The compost at the bottom of the pile usually “finishes” first. You will know your compost is finished and ready to use when it stops heating and the original ingredients are unrecognizable. This usually takes 6 to 12 months.
o Nothing happening!: If you notice nothing happening, you may need to add more nitrogen, water or air. Cold composting can take a year or more to break down, depending on the materials in the pile and the conditions.
o Compost pile is too hot: If your compost pile is too hot, you may have too much nitrogen. Add some more carbon materials to reduce heating. A bad smell can also indicate too much nitrogen.
o Attracts Flies and Insects: Adding kitchen waste can attract insects. To prevent this problem, make a hole in the center of the pile and bury the waste. Remember…don’t add meat scraps or other animal matter, pet manure, diseased plant material, weeds, fats or oils, or dairy products.
o Can I use fresh manure?: No. This could burn your plants. Make sure manure (NOT dog or cat poop) is well aged before it goes into your garden.
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