Disclaimer: long post
I can’t explain why, but composting is kind of intimidating to me. There’s really not a lot to it, but at the same time, it’s science, and when I don’t have all of the information, I feel paralyzed and like I can’t get started.
A few months ago I was clicking through the Los Angeles Department Of Water And Power Website (I’m a nerd, we know this, don’t judge) and I stumbled on Smart Gardening, a FREE county sponsored class that goes ALL over LA County to teach both a beginners AND advanced composting class. Added bonus, they’ll sell you a compost bin way cheaper than you can buy them in stores and there’s no sales tax. You can get a backyard bin for $40 and a worm compost kit for $65. They also gave everyone a free packet of seeds (home grown tomatoes here we come). So I woke up super early on a Saturday morning, dragged my ass from Culver City to West Hills (about 45 minutes without traffic) to the BEAUTIFUL Orcutt Ranch (seriously people, it’s beautiful, if you live in LA check it out) and listened to a city certified master gardener share his composting knowledge.
I loved everything about this. Some stuff I knew, some I didn’t, but I now feel (moderately) confident in setting up my brand spanking new backyard bin. (I didn’t want to start this project by being tasked with keeping living creatures alive, especially since I’ll be in and out of town over the next few months.)
So here’s what I learned – although I strongly recommend attending this if you live in LA, but if not, this is from the mouth of someone who is not an expert and has just learned. Feel free to add things I’ve missed in the comments section if you ARE an expert.
While the class went over backyard bins, worm bins, grass recycling, and some other tidbits of gardening information, I’m mainly focusing on backyard bins in this post.
Don’t have a yard but still want to responsibly dispose of your food waste? Trash is for Tossers posted a video about how to compost anywhere LITERALLY today (I feel so on trend!). Check out your local farmers market for dropping off compost you’ve collected, OR just do a quick google search to find out how to compost in your city (I found this LA Resource in about 10 seconds – and that was just the first search result). Some cities and neighborhoods offer curbside compost pickup – but make sure to check out your utility website to confirm what you can and cannot put into your bin.
Part 1: Why should we compost?
Composting takes a large amount of your food and yard waste and turns it into good, nutrient rich soil. It “feeds your landscape instead of the landfill”. So if you have a garden space, want to grow food, or just grow a beautiful garden, it’s definitely worth it to consider a compost bin in your yard. Composting improves your soil structure. Literally the place where you put your bin will thrive because it draws all of the bugs and good things into the surrounding area. This is called biodiversity – all of these bugs and microorganisms in your soil are adding nutrients and keeping it alive and healthy. And nutrient rich soil requires less water to stay healthy. Muddying up your soil doesn’t help your plants, but giving your plants soil that holds onto water better does! AND when you compost, you are responsibly diverting waste from a landfill, minimizing the carbon footprint of your household. (Yay you!)
So to sum up – composting means less waste, happy garden, less money spent on watering your garden, and potentially home grown fruits and veggies!
Part 1 bonus: It is recommended that you keep your compost bin in the garden (on soil to enrich that area as mentioned above) to keep the bugs that it attracts away from your home. It has also been suggested that by creating this bountiful haven that bugs will love, that the bugs will be drawn away from your home and into the compost bin where you want them. I’ll report back on this as I have been battling an ant problem in my home, and I’m hoping this can help solve it once and for all.
Part 2: What goes into the compost bin?
The contents of the bin should be roughly half brown materials and half green materials. (Although our master gardener told us he goes heavy on the green materials to keep his bin gooey – the “gooeyier the better, man!” he claims!)
Brown Materials: Paper, cardboard, newspaper, dead leaves, and other yard waste. We were specifically told not to put twigs or branches into the bin, but instead to add those to the green bins that the city picks up. In order for those to compost, you need to shred them into tiny pieces, so unless you’ve got that setup in your yard, don’t add them to your compost. (Printed paper is ok! We were informed that printer ink is soy based, and will compost with no problem).
Green Materials: Any fruit or vegetable food waste. No animal or animal-bi products here.
Other Kitchen Waste: Egg shells, coffee grounds, and paper coffee filters can all go into your compost.
Manure: The master gardener went on and on about manure and the benefits to your compost. (He also said do NOT use the waste of domesticated house pets!) Horse manure is apparently the greatest thing that could possibly happen to your compost. If you want the worms to travel underground to your bin, just add horse poop!
Old clothes: Linen, cotton, hemp – fibers that grow from the ground and do not require a chemical process to be turned into yarn (like rayon, modal, lyocell, bamboo are all chemically turned into a fiber) can go into the bin. They are natural and will break down just fine. If it has non biodegradable fibers woven in, I imagine you’ll come across those later when you try to harvest your soil).
Part 3: Getting started
1. Set up your bin on soil away from your home near where you want to grow things.
2. Fill the bottom with brown materials – shredded cardboard is a good starter.
3. Add the green matter on top. (I gather mine in a countertop compost bin like this. Just collect for a few days and empty into the outside bin before it starts to rot in your kitchen.)
4. Add water every 7-10 days
5. 3-6 months later you will have composted soil that can be harvested from the bottom of the bin.
Part 4: All the what ifs
If your bin is cool on the inside, it’s probably dry and needs some more nitrogen – this is vegetable matter. Add some more food scraps to your bin.
If your bin is too hot, add paper and cardboard.
But what’s the maximum temperature? 170°F – It seems you can buy thermometers for this.
Bugs in your compost? Yay you’re doing a good job!
Rats and other unwanted critters in your compost? Add manure (but add manure anyway apparently!)
Where can you get manure? I’m not exactly sure yet, I’ll update when I figure it out. He mentioned a few places but that’s the one thing I forgot to write down.
Bin smells bad? Add citrus – a paper bag full of citrus will facilitate in breaking down whatever is causing the stink.
Part 5: What can’t go in the bin
Grease (and grease soaked things)
Diseased or infected plants
Glossy Paper (recycle it instead)
Invasive weeds (bugs don’t like weeds and we like bugs!)
Seeds (this is only kind of a don’t – you might find something has sprouted in your bin! Plant it in a small pot and nurture it, you just might have a healthy new plant friend!)
No pesticide treated clippings
No pet litter or feces.
A last little nugget of joy from the master gardener: Hang out with people treating their soil – they’re positive people!