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Urban/Suburban Hippies, Part Two

Apr12

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smackdown_compost.jpg

Dear Amalah,

I saw your post last week with the Suburban/Urban Hippies title and nearly squealed out loud in my cubicle farm at work! And I opened it! And was a little disappointed…not because backyard gardening isn’t the greatest thing ever (it is, and I espouse its wonders to all I know which really just elicits a lot of eye rolling from my non-hippie friends and co-workers) but because I need even more hippieness! I’m far-beyond backyard gardening…I need to know about composting.

I feel like it is a dirty little secret that nobody talks about but it seems like everyone that is “green” and “hippiesh” does this and I want to compost too, but I don’t know how. I’ve turned to Google but after reading the details on a few sites I immediately start to panic, hit the red “x” and back away from the computer while trying to convince myself I’m heading down a very, very dark rabbit hole. Because! Equal ratios brown and green matter! Additional enzymes! Turn frequently! Keep moist! Holy crap, it can’t be this complicated can it?

And I remember this post from last year where you casually mention that you compost. AND I WANT TO KNOW MORE. Because you claim you’re lazy. I want to be lazy too. But a lazy hippie that composts and saves the earth a little.

So, questions! A list! You love lists, right?

1. How hard is it?
2. Does the ratios of brown and green matter really matter? (Ugh, that’s awful.) How much? Surely this is not an exact science?
3. Are there bugs?? (This is important. Hubby wants no part of the composting if it attracts bugs. He hates bugs. Except lady bugs. It is oddly endearing.)
4. Does it smell? (Also very important. My neighbors already think we’re weird what with our garden and rain barrel and my casual mention that a backyard chicken coop could be fun. I cannot alienate them with smelly compost.)
5. What do you do in the winter? I read that some people freeze all their compostable materials until spring? Is this really possible?
6. What type/size of composter do you use? I read you need two to compost continually.
7. How long does it take to get the compost? I kinda get bored if nothing happens in a relatively quick time period.

My fruit and vegetable peelings anxiously await your answer.
Kammi

HOORAY FOR HIPPIES. AND GARBAGE.

So yes! We compost. Just enough to serve as fertilizer for our garden — we’re not going so incredibly full-bore that we no longer throw out anything or generate any garbage or spare yard trim or anything — but we swore off using anything other than compost after our poor dumb dog ate some (natural and organic!) bagged fertilizer and it nearly killed her. Plus, everyone we know who gardens swore that good homebrew compost is like, vegetable Viagra.

Tomatoes as big as your head! More rainbow chard than you know what to do with! Cauliflower that craps gold ingots!

Okay, so that may be a wee bit of an oversell, but you get the idea. If you’re at all unhappy with the soil in your yard and can’t seem to keep a crop of dandelions alive, consider a small composting project — I promise that on the Dirty Hippie Scale of Gross, composting probably comes in a few spots below cloth diapering.

Since you were so kind as to provide a handy list of questions, let’s run through them:

1. How hard is it?

Probably only as hard as you care to make it. We don’t deal with an actual giant compost pile and tarps and…I don’t know, daily pH measurements or whatever the hell. We have a compost tumbler in the backyard next to our trash cans. Every day or so, when I head out to deposit a bag of trash or stack of paper recycling, I bring along a Tupperware bin full of our kitchen waste and dump it in. Jason supplements the pile with yard work offerings on the weekends. After we add stuff, we spin it a few times.

I highly recommend this book to get you started in a non-overwhelming-y way: Let it Rot!: The Gardener’s Guide to Composting. I’ve never sat down and read it cover to cover, but use it as a reference mostly. Troubleshooting when things aren’t breaking down, figuring out what we can and cannot add, what should be added only occasionally, stuff like that. (Fireplace ashes! Very beneficial! Who knew!) I actually had a really hard time selling Jason on the composting idea, but after we picked this book up he was fully on-board.

2. Does the ratio of brown and green matter really matter? (Ugh, that’s awful.) How much? Surely this is not an exact science?

Yes. It matters. No. It is not an exact science. You do want about a 50/50 mix of brown stuff (leaves, branches, mulch, soil, stuff that’s “dead”) and green stuff (grass clippings, vegetables, flowers, stuff that’s “alive”) for really great compost. But even if you screw up, you’ll still probably get really GOOD compost. You experiment, you eyeball. We messed up, for example, by adding waaaay too many pine needles at one time — they take FOREVER to break down and our pile became kind of dry and stagnant. So…Jason put on a pair of gloves and yanked out a few handfuls of the non-degraded needles, blasted the rest with a hose, and now everything is just fine. The key (for us) is that generally everything from our kitchen can go in, but we produce way more yard waste than can go in the composter. So when Jason mows the grass, for example, he only adds about half of the clippings. But really, it’s mostly been trial and error and I promise you nobody has died or gotten arrested or triggered a nuclear winter in our backyard.

3. Are there bugs?

Well. Yes. Sort of. You will get earthworms and creepy crawlies in the compost. And you WANT earthworms and creepy crawlies, just like you want them in the soil in your garden. Occasionally I’ve spotted some gnats? But that’s it. This is another benefit of our tumbler — it has screened ventilation holes and latches tightly closed so we’ve never had a problem with fly maggots or anything uber-gross. Jason was originally against composting because he had memories of his parents’ old-school open pile that stunk and attracted bugs and vermin. Modern-composting technology to the lazy hippie’s rescue!

4. Does it smell?

Nope. I mean, I wouldn’t stand there with the door open while breathing deeply or anything, but no, there is no odor coming from the bin.

5. What do you do in the winter? I read that some people freeze all their compostable materials until spring? Is this really possible?

I have never heard of that freezing thing! That sounds a little ambitiously hardcore. We just…kept adding stuff all winter, to a point, until the tumbler was full. Then we just gave it a spin or two whenever we were out by the garbage cans, waiting for the contents to break down in time for early spring gardening. (You know your compost is ready when you see it kind of…steaming in the chilly morning weather. Heh.)

6. What type/size of composter do you use? I read you need two to compost continually.

This is the tumbler we have. We snagged ours on clearance when Smith & Hawken went out of business, though Jason thinks this cheaper model might actually be sturdier. The tumbler model does mean you’ve got a higher start-up cost, but if you aren’t down with shoveling and mixing stinky compost yourself and are really going for that lazy and spoiled hippie aesthetic, it’s totally worth it.
That said, we DON’T compost continuously. We don’t really need to, because we simply don’t have the need for that much compost. We use it on our front, side and backyard flower beds and all the container gardens, and unless you have a REALLY big yard and a ton of garden beds to cover, one compost bin should probably make enough for you. At least to start. Give it a try and add another bin later if you like it. But don’t feel like composting needs to be an all-or-nothing undertaking. Even if you’re still throwing stuff down the garbage disposal or bagging up some yard trim, you’re at least reducing your waste, probably significantly. It’s still a good thing.

6. How long does it take to get the compost?

Totally depends on what you put IN the compost. The Let it Rot book will help you identify stuff that breaks down quickly and what takes longer (pine needles, citrus peels), plus ways to speed up the decomposition. As a general rule it will take a couple months to fill the bin and for everything to get really good and soil-y looking. Again, a tumbler bin and frequent tumblings are your friend here, since you can more easily get moisture to the entire pile.
Oh my God, you guys. I just wrote an entire column about COMPOST. Remember when eyeshadow and shampoo and cute shoes were my only areas of (dubious) expertise? If you do remember, well, at least I can take some comfort in the fact that you’ve gotten just as many years older as I have.

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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19 Responses to “Urban/Suburban Hippies, Part Two”

  1. gemma Apr 12 at 10:12 am Reply Reply

    My dad has 14 compost bins at home. Its like some kind of composty wine cellar, with different vintages and mixtures and stuff. There’s enough for his garden, my sister’s garden, the neighbour’s garden…

  2. kellyannecat Apr 12 at 12:08 pm Reply Reply

    Great article! We live out in the country and have two compost piles at the edge of our yard, fenced in chicken wire – one pile is “open” at a time – we’ll close down one pile and let it rot for about a year before we use it in the garden. This way we don’t have to get in there with a shovel and turn it, which is hard and gross.
    We keep a big salad bowl next to the kitchen sink, and that’s where we put our compostables – usually coffee grinds, tea bags, egg shells, and fruit and vegetable scraps. We take it out to the pile at the end of the day, or whenever it’s full.
    Since our pile is open, we don’t put fat or protein in the pile, which attracts raccoons and dogs.
    If we think of it, we put in lawn clippings and dried leaves, but that’s actually pretty rare. Our compost is probably a bit heavy on the green stuff, and it does gets a bit buggy and smelly in the summer, for this reason. Since it’s far from enough away from our house, and our neighbors, this is fine.
    We used to live in town, and had a similar sort of compost arrangement, but we tucked our compost pile out of the way of our neighbor’s view – it’s not a nice thing to look at. We were more conscientious about adding the brown matter, too, so it didn’t get gross.
    So, we are lazy, low-maintenance composters. We’re probably not reaching our compost potential, but we’re all about underachieving, house and garden-wise. And it really does cut down on our household trash.

  3. shannon Apr 12 at 1:01 pm Reply Reply

    We compost in our backyard too, minus the tumbler. Our county gives away free compost bins, with the expectation that you use them for your yard trash. We do that — we generate a lot of leaves every fall and actually save them to use for the compost bin during the year — but we also use all our organic kitchen scraps, too. When I was making my own baby food (something my Katie has moved beyond now), it was really nice to be able to throw it all in the compost pile.
    We rotate it about once a month, and other than that, leave it alone.
    And this year, when I started prepping the soil for the eventual planting of many, many seedlings in my raised beds, I used my own lovely compost. Which was very gratifying, in a hippy-ish sort of way.

  4. Amy Apr 12 at 1:09 pm Reply Reply

    Wow, I read your column regularly. Love it. But I have to say, I have never had any desire whatsoever to compost in my entire life. Suddenly it sounds fairly uneventful and not nasty, disgusting, smelly.
    I had a neighbor with an open compost area in her yard and they smelled up the entire two backyards (ours, hers) for an entire summer or so before she finally got rid of it. It was so vile.

  5. Amy Apr 12 at 1:52 pm Reply Reply

    Coffee grounds are considered a “green”, and Starbucks will usually give you a huge garbage bag full of grounds if you ask. The grounds can also be sprinkled around plants that like some acid, e.g. azaleas, blueberries, etc. Many lawnmowers have “recycle” settings or something like that, and that’s a great way to fertilize your lawn, and no clippings to throw away! The lawnmower basically cuts the grass finely enough to allow it to be deposited back on the lawn. So long as you’re not adding meat products (eggs themselves (shells are fine), butter, meat, etc.) you shouldn’t have a smell/animal problem.

  6. Susan Apr 12 at 1:54 pm Reply Reply

    This is very timely because I just went out and turned our compost pile yesterday, and was AMAZED at the gorgeous, velvety soft mulchy goodness that took the place of eggshells, banana peels, coffee grounds and lots and lots of mown grass.
    We are (okay, I am) slightly hippier than you, I think, if only because we live on a corner lot with a gigantic yard and a huge garden. My husband built a three section wooden compost bin that is huge [inspired by this one: http://www.organicgardening.com/feature/0,7518,s1-3-79-1736,00.html, but again, we have the space. It requires more effort than the tumbler – we have to actually shovel the compost into the next bin in order to stir it, but damn if it’s not a good arm/ab workout.
    I was really surprised by how great our compost looked yesterday because a) we NEVER put enough browns into the pile – we don’t have any trees in our yard so no dead leaves, and we put all of the lawn clippings in (except what gets spread in the garden as mulch) and b) we had not turned it since early October. Also, the winter before we had covered the whole thing with a tarp to insulate it and maintain the temperature level but that was a pain to add more kitchen scraps, so this year we just left it open to the elements.
    We have a gallon sized Tupperware with a lid that we keep in the fridge, and we add all fruit/veg scraps (except avocado pits – those take forever to break down), coffee grounds, eggshells, wine corks (only real cork, though – not plastic, duh), etc. We also tear up paper egg cartons and throw those in the pile. The only stink I’ve experienced is when I have a lot of onion peels in the Tupperware for a while – that’s gross, but endurable.
    I’ve never seen bugs or worms in ours, but we did have a family of mice move in last fall (another reason to turn it more frequently, if you’re not a rodent fan).
    I’m always surprised when I go to other homes and they just throw kitchen scraps in the trash, but I guess not everyone likes to dig in the dirt. I took my 16 month old out into the garden with me yesterday and he delighted in actually climbing on top of the compost pile, and then into the empty bin I was trying to move the compost into. Eh, what’s a little dirt – someday he’ll be the one doing the shoveling!

  7. Aimee Apr 12 at 1:59 pm Reply Reply

    Great column, once again! I’m so glad to see that composting is becoming mainstream. I started composting about 4 years ago, and I have to say that it really is low-maintenance for lazy people, like me. I barely spend any time at all on it.
    I have an “Earthmaker 2000″ bin, which is generally even less maintenance than Amy’s spinning thing because you basically layer the browns and greens and don’t touch it all all except for once or twice a year fluffing– maintaining the layers is key. This one is basically a giant bin that’s open on the bottom to let the worms in– you need worms to convert your food scraps and leaves into soil (except that on the bottom, we attached a wire mesh with about 1″ x 1″ holes– to let the worms in but keep anything larger out).
    I am only a seasonal composter because where I am in Pittsburgh, no decomposition really happens in the winter, so I basically don’t throw anything in between December and April. I have a tiny urban yard with very little space for gardening, and I’ve been able to use finished compost to plant container herbs like basil and cilantro–without even mixing in potting soil. So, I saved lots of $$ by not buying as much potting soil.
    A typical year of composting for me: in May, I will empty out the finished compost and use it in gardening, fertilizing, etc.; throughout the summer I will add a bucketful of food scraps followed by a bucketful of dried leaves I saved from the prior fall; in late fall/early winter, I’ll just fluff it with a gardening fork, then dump as many raked leaves as I can fit in, then forget about it until May.
    Depending on where you live, composting may be subsidized– many states are trying to reduce their loads on the landfills, so they offer classes and equipment to the public to encourage composting. In Pennsylvania, they offer classes for $40, which includes the compost bin! I took the regular Backyard Composting Class, and I was basically set. Here’s the link for the Pennsylvania Resources Council’s classes:
    http://www.prc.org/community_adultedu.html
    I bet that if you contact PRC, they will tell you which other areas offer similar programs and offer you resources in your area. They also offer vermiculture classes, which I don’t completely understand, but I think it is a faster version of composting, where you can add your own worms to speed up the decomposition process. It’s way more complicated than regular composting.
    One thing I learned from the class is that if you want to speed up the decomposition process, then dump a can of cheap beer into your compost. I only tried it once because come on– leftover beer? Where?
    Anyway, I hope that helps. I second Amy’s book recommendation Let it Rot. If you can’t find a composting class, then the book should cover the specifics regarding which items can go in, etc. Good luck!

  8. ClumberKim Apr 12 at 1:59 pm Reply Reply

    Composting done correctly doesn’t smell. I have had a traditional bin outside and a worm bin in the garage for more than 2 years. We also made two small worm bins for my son’s classroom last year. The kids loved it and used the compost when they did some spring planting at the school.

  9. Lauren Apr 12 at 2:18 pm Reply Reply

    This is a worm compost bin, which might freak some of you out, but when I read this, I thought it was really cool and great for a small/urban space: http://smallnotebook.org/tutorials/the-apartment-compost-bin/

  10. Jessie Apr 12 at 2:20 pm Reply Reply

    Our compost ‘bin’ is just a hole dug in the ground in the backyard with a sort of gate on top of it to keep the dog out. We have a stack of leaves and grass clippings next to it, so that when there’s enough vegetable matter in there we can top it off with brown matter. This helps keep the smell down.

  11. Julie Apr 12 at 2:56 pm Reply Reply

    It’s really hard to mess up composting. Yes, all those rules you read are the best for *optimal* composting, where things break down as fast as possible, and you get perfect hummus out. But if you mess up, it just means things don’t break down quite as fast. And you figure out by trial and error what works and what doesn’t.
    The only hard and fast rules I worry about are no meat in the compost pile (so it won’t attract scavengers), and if you’re using it for compost on gardens you don’t want to put anything into it that you don’t want on your food (for instance, compostable cat litters/diaper liners/etc shouldn’t go into a vegetable garden compost since there could be parasites/diseases you don’t want on your garden.) Oh, and don’t put anything in your compost pile that you don’t want growing out of it – in theory a well regulated compost pile will get hot enough to kill fungus, parasites, and seeds, but if you’re going in a more seat of the pants method, you don’t want to toss weed seeds into your compost and end up with their seeds sprouting in your garden.
    I’d say give it a try, and trouble shoot and make adjustments as you go along. If you find your pile isn’t getting hot enough, you might need to add a little more green or some enzymes. If you find that you don’t like eggshell fragments in your compost when everything else has broken down, you might stop adding them. Etc. It’s a great system to just start experimenting with.

  12. Elle B Apr 12 at 3:59 pm Reply Reply

    You might also check out this post from Young House Love on their compost bin–I found it helpful.
    http://www.younghouselove.com/2008/08/younghouselovedotcompost/

  13. Kammi Apr 12 at 4:21 pm Reply Reply

    OMG, I can’t believe Amalah answered my question!
    Thanks Amy and everyone else for the fabulous tips and tricks.
    Thanks to you all, I’m spending my birthday money on a new compost bin instead of that new pair of summer shoes I’ve been eyeing.
    Gah, I’m so OLD.

  14. From Belgium Apr 13 at 6:00 am Reply Reply

    Do not add to much freshly mowed grass or your compost will ‘burn’. If you want to upspeed the proces on the other hand use a lot of grass.

  15. eliza Apr 13 at 10:44 am Reply Reply

    when i lived in monterey i made my own tiny compost bin (because we had a tiny postage stamp yard to garden in) out of a 5 gallon bucket (the orange ones from home depot). I drilled holes in the bottom and sides and just put kitchen scraps and grass clippings. I did have to give it a stir with my little trowel once in a while. I found that the grass clippings were essential for the rate of breakdown and to keep down smell.
    One great bonus was that I got about a bazillion “free” tomato plants that grew up out of the compost (on that note- don’t put weeds in your compost or any other kinds of seeds that you don’t want to grow in your garden)
    And I don’t think that composting/gardening = old… I begged my mom from the time I was like 10 to do both and had to wait til I moved out and got my own place to do it :)

  16. Melissa Apr 15 at 1:59 pm Reply Reply

    We do the freezing thing. It really isn’t a hassle at all since we’re already in the habit of setting that stuff aside. Granted, you have to have freezer space, but freezer bags, coffee “cans”, plastic bowls with lids, whatever, kept in the freezer makes it pretty convenient. Plus, at the beginning of the warm season, you have a whole mess of stuff to start with!

  17. Heather Apr 16 at 6:14 pm Reply Reply

    I too find composting a little overwhelming. Two years ago I try the chicken wire square thing. It ended up badly. Not only did our dogs dig in it, the but the rabbits and mice also found it fun. So after a year hiatus while I was pregant I am going to try a “tumbler.” After looking over a ton of youtube videos this seems to be the best choice for me. It is small and contained. Simply roll the barrel over the ground. This is supposed to speed up the process giving compost in as little as 2 weeks. I am keeping my fingers crossed. :)
    http://confessionsofanewlesbianmom.blogspot.com/

  18. Leslie Apr 17 at 10:43 am Reply Reply

    I have composted for many years. Got my first bin for free after attending a backyard composting seminar hosted by my local county. I also got a worm composting bin from the same class. Just had to pay $10 for the worms. Best thing about composting is it doesn’t take a lot of effort. Best advice: Try to cut your kitchen scraps into smaller pieces. They break down in a shorter amount of time. Corn cobs on average take a year to 2 to breakdown.
    Worm composting on the other hand, lots of fun for the kids but requires much more effort. If you do not keep up with giving the worms enough food or give them too much to eat (that it molds) the worms will abandon their habitat. They can get out without being detected, so I don’t think I would ever put them inside the house. After losing our first bunch of worms to the backyard, we were much more attentive to our next bunch’s needs. My daughters have grown to a point where they just pick up the worms and reposition them near the food. Remember worms like the dark, so either keep them in dark colored bins, or in shaded areas. We keep them on the patio during the warmer months and in the garage during the cooler season.

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