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Urban/Suburban Hippies, Part Two

By Amalah

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.

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

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 Ama...

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 [email protected].

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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gemma
Guest

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…

kellyannecat
Guest
kellyannecat

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… Read more »

shannon
Guest

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,… Read more »

Amy
Guest
Amy

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.

Amy
Guest
Amy

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… Read more »

Susan
Guest
Susan

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%5D, but again, we have the space. It requires more effort than the tumbler… Read more »

Aimee
Guest
Aimee

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… Read more »

ClumberKim
Guest

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.

Lauren
Guest
Lauren

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/

Jessie
Guest

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.

Julie
Guest
Julie

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… Read more »

Elle B
Guest
Elle B

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/

Kammi
Guest
Kammi

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.

From Belgium
Guest
From Belgium

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.

eliza
Guest
eliza

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… Read more »

Melissa
Guest

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!

Heather
Guest
Heather

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.… Read more »

Leslie
Guest
Leslie

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… Read more »

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