Thursday, May 20, 2010

Composting Tips: Warm, Hot or Cold

From Garbage to Garden

Composting is nature’s way of recycling organic materials like fallen trees, yard waste, and even kitchen scraps. Home composting kits are now widely available so you can make good use of kitchen scraps in the yard or garden.

We know what you’re thinking. “If nature can recycle organics, why should I compost at home instead of putting my waste out for the landfill to decompose?” Well, the answer is simple. The process of composting occurs most effectively in specific conditions which landfills cannot provide due to the presence of other waste including plastics, metals, and textiles. These materials halt the process and inhibit the compost from forming. Thus composting at home will provide you with great satisfaction knowing that you are diverting trash from landfills and will save you money on fertilizers.

Under correct conditions, the end product is like black gold, a rich soil full of organic nutrients that can be added to your yard or houseplants. By making the decision to compost your scraps year round, you can reduce your contribution to the 30% of yard and kitchen waste collected in landfills. Composting is easy but even the experts get stumped about the composting process during the change of seasons. It is important to understand that composting requires various components and no matter the temperature change, it can continue successfully, if modified accordingly.

Heat, drought, desert, and… composting?

Composting in a hot, dry climate sounds like a contradiction, but despite the limited moisture it is possible. Many dedicated composters who live in the desert or experience hot summers find that their heap dries out significantly during immense heat. There are numerous steps you can take to prevent dry compost or to rejuvenate a “pile in progress”:

  • Compost should be as moist as a wrung out rag; thus, if your heap is drier add water or move the bin into a shady area.

  • Keep a lid on your compost pile to reduce evaporation; dry compost does not decay.

  • Compost forms best with a carbon to nitrogen ratio of 30:1. Materials that contain carbon are generally brown and include dry leaves, wood chips, and cardboard. Nitrogen waste is green and includes things like lettuce, grass and fresh leaves. Arid climates are limited in carbon yard waste, so add debris like fallen pine needles, wood chips, ashes, corn stalks, shredded newspaper, shredded cardboard, sawdust, straw, and peanut shells.

  • If you live in a dry climate or are experiencing a drought, you need to build your compost pile in a container that retains water. Using a plastic barrel or drum is a great idea. You do not want to use screening, widely-spaced slats, or chicken wire because this will promote evaporation.

  • Every time you add another layer to the organic compost, use the hose to soak the material until it is about as damp as a wrung out rag. Make the layers of compost thinner when conditions are dry; you can accomplish this by increasing the surface area.

  • When it does rain in your dry climate you’ll want to utilize the rainwater. Make the top of the compost indented like a bowl or dish. You can even create a water tube to hydrate the inside of the compost pile. Simply drill holes around a one to two inch PVC pipe connected to the water bowl and place it into the center of the pile.

Brr… it’s compost outside!

Composting during winter time or in cold climates is not unheard of. Despite the cold trips outdoors to their receptacles, many composters say that come spring, their compost is better than ever. Since worm and bacteria activity decreases in cold temperatures, your compost will slow down in decay and possibly overflow.

  • If you have harsh winters, move your compost pile to a warmer area (close to an outside wall, alongside the garage, or other sheltered area) during cold months.

  • If the compost pile is cold, try adding more nitrogen (green waste). Remember to maintain a well balanced ratio of carbon to nitrogen.

  • Adding some insulation (cardboard, wood, old home insulation) to your compost bin will help keep the heat in and continue composting during harsh winters.

  • The earth can be a great source of insulation, you can dig a trench and dump water into it. Simply cover with a tarp when not in use and bury when full.

  • If you live in a cold climate, keep your compost in a sunny area or indoors (shed, garage).

  • Worms are an important part of composting, come winter and they’re nowhere to be found. You can purchase starter worms to add to your cold compost.

  • Breaking down waste into smaller pieces during the winter will keep the composting process from slowing down excessively.

  • To keep your system working during the winter you will need to continue adding materials all winter. Most people don’t like to take frequent trips through their backyard tundra, so keep a small composting bin under the sink for scraps. When it fills, empty it into the outdoor composting bin (if you did not move it indoors).

Temperate Climate

Composting is most popular in areas with temperate climates. The weather provides the necessary temperature and moisture for the composting process. However, despite the favorable climate any heap can be ruined if you add meats, fish, citruses, oily foods (which are likely to attract unwanted pests), milk products, and pet manures. Keep in mind that manure from pets that are herbivores such as rabbits, gerbils, sheep, cows, and chickens is a great supplement because their manure is a great source of nitrogen. In addition to such helpful tips, there are also general rules to composting in a temperate region:

  • If it is too wet, remove the lid of your composting bin for one/two days or elevate the compost pile so that the excess liquid can drain from the bottom. Too much liquid can halt the process.

  • Sometimes composting can be a challenge in temperate climates due to the unexpected amount of rainwater or temperature. Balance the wetness of your heap by adding things like hay, sawdust, or leaves.

  • Since the location’s soil is likely to be rich and full of worms, position your compost pile over soil rather than concrete. Worms will aid in the process and will produce excellent vermicompost (you can purchase additional worms).

For more information

Sierra Club Composting Video

Trash Compactors

Garbage Disposals

Healthy Lawns and Gardens


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