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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 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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