Thursday, April 12, 2007

How to Compost #3: Collect Organic Material

Collect Organic Material. This is an interesting step, and for those of you who really like biology and research and want to bring your nitrogen and carbon ratios to a level of molecular and scientific perfection...I really can't help you much. I can point you to a couple short articles: this from EarthWorks and this from How Stuff Works. I guarantee you can find lots of composting books at the library that will further quench your thirst for knowledge.

But very basically and simply, you need a few important ingredients in order to make compost:
  • Oxygen
  • Water
  • Heat
  • Browns (Carbon)
  • Greens (Nitrogen)
Oxygen: Organic material needs to be exposed to oxygen in order to break down. This is why turning your compost pile or tumbler on a regular basis will speed up the process.

Water: Some moisture is necessary for composting. If your pile is too dry, it will take a long time to decompose.

Heat: You need to collect enough organic material so that your pile will create its own heat. Your compost pile won't really get hot until there is a fair sized amount, but then it will really heat up...sometimes up to 150 degrees!

Browns: This is the carbon part of the mix. Woody and leafy materials like:
  • leaves
  • twigs
  • straw
  • paper
These things can take a long time to break down, but you can speed the process by shredding them. We have a paper shredder in the kitchen where we go through the mail. Our junk mail goes directly into the shredder, and then into the composter. As mentioned in Step 2, our dump has a compost pile for leaves, twigs, grass, and other yard clippings. Since leaves take a while to decompose, we're just bringing those to the dump, and sticking with the shredded paper for our browns. I will, of course, let you know how that pans out.

Greens: The nitrogen portion of your compost pile are the "fresh" ingredients. These are things like kitchen scraps and grass clippings. We got a little compost pail for our kitchen that has a filter on the top so it won't smell(at $30, the filtered pail was worth it!) It sits next to the sink and we dump our kitchen scraps right in there. When it's full, we bring it out to the compost bin.

NOTE: My husband, as I mentioned in a previous post, likes things to be impeccably clean. The thought of constantly cleaning out a pail of rotting food waste was pretty disgusting to him. So. We got BioBags. Seriously, these are 100% biodegradable bags (made out of corn) that you can put right in your composter. We line the pail with a BioBag, then when the pail is full, simply take the bag out to the composter (be sure to empty the bag into the composter instead of just tossing it in full...everything will decompose much faster if it's loose), rinse out the pail, and that's that. No muss, no fuss.

THE RATIO: I've read some conflicting information on what your brown to green ratio should be. The basic rule is, you should have more browns than greens. If the compost smells (apparently it shouldn't...Kevin is very skeptical, but so far we have no smell), just add more browns. If it's not doing anything, add more greens.

There are some things that you do not want to put in your composter. To name a few:
  • Coal ash
  • Cat litter
  • Grease
  • Anything with disinfectant (baby wipes, paper towel with Windex on it)...this will kill all the bacteria in your compost
I've seen conflicting reports about whether you should add meat or not. It will decompose, but it may attract animals, and it may coat things with grease which will slow down the process. We're going to avoid it for now. has a great list. If you scroll down, there is a chart that lists what can be composted, what you should be careful of, and what you should avoid. There are some really interesting and helpful things on the list. For instance, it says to avoid lime. Now, do they mean lime like you put on your lilac trees, or lime like you squeeze into a margarita? 'Cause I think we've put at least 5 lime rinds in our compost already. If my whole experiment fails miserably, I'm going to blame it on the limes! The chart also tells you which items are carbon and which are nitrogen.

Here's a list of 163 things you can compost by Marion Owen, a woman who writes a blog about gardening in Alaska. So for those of you who live in places where it is STILL SNOWING IN APRIL, this could be a useful site. Though I'm not going to tell Kevin about what Marion calls "the surprise at the end" of the list...I think that's a bit more than we can handle right now!

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

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