Thursday, March 29, 2007

How to Compost #2: Choose a System

As I discussed last week in my first post on this subject, Kevin and I are taking up composting this Spring. I'll be blogging here about our progress from beginning to end, using the "7 Simple Steps for Home Composting" I learned from Fred Horch of F.W. Horch Sustainable Goods and Supplies (plus my added first step). Again, I'm learning as I go along, so feel free to comment or help out in any way.

Last week was Step 1: Make it a Priority

This week is Step 2: Choose a System.

Over the next few weeks, I'll address the following topics:

Step 3: Collect Organic Material
Step 4: Mix the Materials
Step 5: Moisten the Mixture
Step 6: Wait
Step 7: Use Your Compost
First: 2 basic concepts I didn't know about composting:
1. You have to let it sit. If you want it to compost, you can't keep adding stuff to your pile. You have to stop adding, and let it sit. Some people have 2 or 3 compost piles going at a time to eliminate lag time between batches.

2. Garbage doesn't compost in the winter. Logical, since heat is a necessary part of composting, but I just hadn't thought of it before. You can still add to your pile over the winter, but it won't really start working again until spring.
CHOOSE A SYSTEM

This is not a difficult concept. Before you start composting, you need to decide what kind of system you will use. But this was a tough one for us. Kevin is a gadget guy, and very sanitary. I'm a perfectionist at heart, and a bit of a cheapskate. Here's what we discovered. Every method works. Every method makes great compost that you can use in your garden and on your lawn. But not every method was designed for us!

SYSTEMS:

1. My kind of town! First things first. Check with your town to see if there are any community or municipal composting projects. Some towns in California are trying out curbside pick-up for compost. Our town dump even has a compost section where you can drop off leaves, grass clippings, and branches. They compost it, and you can come take finished compost from the dump anytime you want.
Our verdict: This is ideal. Simple, easy, and free or mostly free. The downside is that most of these programs do not allow you to include kitchen scraps or paper or anything other than lawn refuse. So if we want to really reduce our waste as much as possible, we need a supplemental system.

2. The simple life. The easiest thing to do is make a pile in your yard. That's it. Pile all your kitchen scraps and organic garbage (paper, leaves, etc.) in a big lump. After the pile is relatively large, don't do anything to it. Let it sit. After a year, turn it over and there will be compost at the bottom. Repeat.
Our verdict: You couldn't get any simpler or cheaper. But. Since we live in a small neighborhood with many dogs and cats who already like to dig around in our lawn, this was not our favorite option. Also, I know it's a flaw, but we're impatient. A year is a long time to wait.

3. The slightly less simple life. Garbage needs oxygen to become compost. You can make your compost pile work faster if you turn it over with a rake on a regular basis. You can keep some critters away by building a wooden box around it.
Our verdict: Again, cheap. But even still. Our neighborhood cats are agile, and we're a little too lazy (or busy if you care to be kind) to go out and turn over a big heap of garbage every couple days. We know ourselves too well.

4. Bin it: This is basically the same concept as the wooden box, only it's a plastic bin where you store your compostable garbage. Looks like an upside down garbage can. Again, you can let it sit on its own for a year, or stir it with a pitchfork or other tool to speed it up. Bins should keep most of the dog/cat variety of critters out, but they aren't immune to squirrels and raccoons and other crafty animals. Online, most plastic bins I saw ran from around $40-175.
Our verdict: Still pretty slow. Still a little messy. Harder to stir than the piles.

5. Tumble it: These are fully enclosed plastic bins that spin. No more turning over the pile. You put your garbage in the tumbler and spin it, or crank it, depending on the model. This system fully spins the garbage, so it gets plenty of oxygen. And no more critters since the tumblers generally are above ground and fully enclosed. They keep in the heat and the moisture, so you can supposedly make compost within 6-12 weeks depending on the conditions. I saw various versions of these run from about $150-675.
Our verdict: Getting warmer. You still have to stop filling it at some point and let the stuff compost, so we'd ideally need two bins...one to fill, another to "cook."

6. Let somebody else eat it: This is cool. Seriously. You have a container filled with worms. You insert your garbage. The worms eat it and make your compost for you. No turning. No mess. No fuss. It's a great system for kids to be involved with...it's like a mini science project in your home. You can do it with a plastic Tupperware bin. But there is a way cooler multi-tiered system of trays where the worms are on one level composting while you add kitchen scraps to the next levels. When the compost on the bottom level is done, the worms climb up to the 2nd level. You remove the compost from the bottom level, and it goes on and on.
Our verdict: Kevin was entirely grossed out by this. I mean really grossed out. It's never going to happen in our house.

SO WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO? Well there's one more system that appears to satisfy Kevin's affection for gadgets and cleanliness, and my impatience and perfectionism (though not really my cheapskated-ness, but I'm willing to bend on this one.) There's a company called Sun-Mar who have, over the last 25 years, perfected the art of the composting toilet. (Yes, you can compost your personal waste, but we're not quite there yet.) Well, they've come out with a dual-drum garden composter that is intended to give you the ease and speed of the tumbler, but also allows you to continually add new material. The finished compost flows into the inner drum, and you can take it out and use it anytime. These run around $275 at our local green store, and while that's not cheap, if it ends up being a system we'll use, I think it will be worth it over time. Just having free, organic fertilizer at my disposal has some monetary value. Here's a detailed diagram for you gadget-folks out there (click on the picture for a larger view):

Now, the biggest question: Is it too good to be true?

I don't know. I couldn't find any substantial consumer reviews on the Sun-Mar 200 Garden Composter. It seems too good to be true. Yet, Sun-Mar is a highly respected company, and they've been in the composting business for a long time. I would think they know a thing or two about the concept. So this is what we're going to go with. We're going to do a bit more research, but then we're moving forward to Step 3: Collect Organic Materials. If all goes well, here's our potential system:
Sun-Mar 200
Vented garden pail for the kitchen (with a filter)
Compostable bags for the kitchen pail
I'll let you know how it goes next week!

Tumblers & bins vs. piles at CompostGuide.com
Mother Nature News review of various compost tumblers
F.W. Horch Guide to Composters

Missed anything in this series? It's easy to catch up:

Step 1: Make it a Priority
Step 2: Choose a System
Interlude: Nature Tried to Kill My Composter
Step 3: Collect Organic Material
Step 4: Mix the Materials
Step 5: Moisten the Mixture
Step 6: Wait
Interlude: The Lightbulb Change
Interlude: The Yogurt Change
Interlude: The Sponge Change
Interlude: The Leftover Change
Interlude: The Napkin Change
The Sort-of Sun-Mar 200 Review Part One
The Sort-of Sun-Mar 200 Review Part Two
Sun-Mar 200 Compost Update
Sun-Mar 200: Starting All Over Again

Step 7: Use Your Compost
Step 8: Sun Mar 200 Garden Composter Review