By Wes Brittenham, New Mexico Soil Health Champion and
Director of Horticulture at Los Poblanos, Historic Inn & Organic Farm in the Village of Los Ranchos
Have you ever thought as you tossed that banana peel, or dumped those coffee grounds into the garbage can, that there might be a better way to utilize the waste products of the kitchen? There is. Have you considered composting but imagined it complicated? It is not. And do you have the impression that composting requires lots of space, and lots of your valuable time and attention? Think again. You can make great compost in a small space without a lot of work, or large financial investment.
While there are many great composting practices, structures, theories and science that do have upfront costs, require space, and will result in a good product and perhaps detailed knowledge, I have a suggestion. Keep it simple. Keep it inexpensive. Make it rewarding, and even fun. The detailed knowledge is there, waiting for you to dive as deep into as you wish. But how does one begin?
We all produce waste, byproducts of our lifestyle and eating and drinking habits. We can recycle much of the waste into healthy, nutritious soil for our gardens. Here follows a practice where just about anyone with a few feet of outdoor space can create soil rich in beneficial microorganisms. You need a container, or containers, some yard and kitchen waste and a bit of curiosity and desire to do something good for Mother Earth.
For the container, anything the size of a five-gallon plastic bucket (or larger) will do. The bucket the cat litter came in. The five- or fifteen-gallon pot from the nursery that you brought the peach tree home in. Maybe a thirty- or forty-gallon plastic trash can. I use a thirty-gallon trash can with holes for drainage drilled in the bottom, and around the sides about a foot or two up the sides, and several fifteen-gallon nursery buckets which already have drainage holes in them.
The cans should be placed in a shady spot outside, and though generally there is no unpleasant odor, you may want to place them in a back corner of the yard or garden. This method is considered cool, or cold composting. It does not generate lots of heat, and therefore is best for vegetative waste, not meat and bones.
When you have chosen a location for your container or containers, begin the layering process, but never get too concerned with layer thicknesses. Think in terms of green and brown. Green waste is the fresh trimmings from your yard or garden, kitchen scraps such as vegetable peels, coffee grounds, eggshells and such. Brown is dry leaves, pine needles, small twigs, old straw mulch, even paper (not dyed) and cardboard. Earthworms love paper!
First, place a layer several inches thick of brown material in the bottom of the bucket or can. Think lasagna. Next a layer several inches thick of green materials. Gather, layer, repeat. Green, brown, green, brown. We keep a container on the kitchen counter to collect the potato and carrot peels, coffee grounds (with paper filters if you use them), eggshells, etc. This is carried out and dumped into the compost container. When the green layer builds up, we spread a layer of dry leaves, pine needles and dry landscape trimmings (nothing too thick and woody). When watering with a hose in the garden, I will splash some into the compost container on occasion.
If I am planting something I brought home from the nursery, I pull the plant and root ball out of the container, and as I dig a hole for the new plant, I dump the soil I am digging into the empty pot. After planting the new plant, whatever soil is left over is dumped into the compost container. This inoculates your compost with soil microorganisms from your garden, and earthworms if you have them. You can always purchase some red wiggler earthworms to add to your compost if you like. We did that thirty years ago when we first moved into our house and started the first composting practice here. We have never purchased worms again, and they abound in our soil and compost.
We have a fire pit in the backyard, and when the fire is extinguished after use, I collect the charcoal (but not the ash) and place it in a bucket. Now and then I will add a bit of charcoal to the compost container- my own free version of bio-char, which you may have read or heard about. I garden in the southwest desert, where our soils are very alkaline and often loaded with potassium, so here things like wood ashes and lime are toxic in the soil.
After a time of breaking down during the summer, black Soldier Flies come to the compost containers to lay their eggs in the smorgasbord. The hatching larvae feed on the decomposing material and speed up the process. This bio-cycle is interesting and educational, and is an example of how you can learn about the creation of healthy soil through observation, curiosity and research.
It is your choice whether to turn the compost or not. Whatever you have the time for. I find that over a season, from spring to the following spring, the compost finishes whether turned or not, and becomes ready to add to the garden. It is a lovely reward to see the waste we generate go into producing something so beneficial to the garden and to the Earth, and to know that you have taken part in the cycle of life. If you have not been a soil builder, there is no better time to begin than now.
Online platform: MakeSoil.org
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