I know a lot of you are stretched thinner than ever these days between working at home and caring for kids. This post is not intended to put pressure on you! But, if you’re at home and were thinking of tackling even a very minor spring cleaning/gardening/art project, I promise that starting composting will be as easy or easier. It’s a simple but important habit that can get us a little more in touch with Mother Nature’s way of doing things, and it lowers our food waste-related greenhouse gas emissions to slow down climate change. It’s fun and easy to get kids involved with helping, too. I had “learn how to compost” on my to-do list for months, and once we actually got started and realized how easy it is, I wondered why we hadn’t done it sooner.
When organic waste rots in a landfill in the absence of oxygen, it produces methane, a greenhouse gas many times more powerful in the short term than carbon dioxide. When composted, the carbon in the organic waste becomes sequestered in rich, healthy soil: a win-win-win for mitigating climate change, providing nutritious fertilizer, and saving money on both waste management and fertilizer production.
One of my hesitations in getting started was that I associated composting with doing your own gardening. As much as I admire people with green thumbs and want to develop my own one day, we’ve only ever planted a small garden with a few tomato plants and herbs, so we don’t really have the need for a huge amount of soil. Of course, using your final compost product in your own garden is a great option, but if composting and gardening is too much to bite off right now, you don’t have to do both! You can offer to give away your compost to school or community gardens or an interested neighbor, or if you don’t have any takers (or if you need to get rid of some during shelter-in-place so can’t give it to anyone), you can just sprinkle it in the woods, in your yard, or on a median (meaning the soil you’ve made by the end of the composting process–not your food scraps!).
A friend of mine shared this helpful presentation on the basics of getting started with composting. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but I’ll hit the highlights here. The most important thing is getting at least a 2:1 ratio of “brown” (carbon-rich) to “green” (nitrogen-rich) in your compost bin. The color designations are a handy nickname for each category but don’t always correspond to the actual color of what’s in the category. The “green” (nitrogen-rich) category comes mostly from your kitchen: fruit and vegetable scraps and peelings, coffee grounds, and tea leaves, as well as “fresh” (not dried out) plants, like cut flowers, lawn or garden clippings, and fresh leaves. The “brown” (carbon-rich) category is more dried out plants, like pine needles and pine cones, dry leaves, and shredded non-glossy paper and cardboard. We are lucky to have a ton of pine trees in our yard, so when we dump the kitchen food scraps in the compost bin, we just grab a couple of big handfuls of dried pine needles to throw in with them. It’s not a good idea to put meat or dairy products in your bin since they attract animals, so in case you need a reason beyond the initial climate benefit and the pandemic-prevention benefit to move towards a vegan diet, a further benefit is limiting food waste since you won’t have the meat and dairy waste around to have to send to the landfill.
Sources I’ve read are mixed on how much moisture to allow into your compost bin. It seems like the consensus is that you need some moisture but you don’t want it sopping wet. There are plenty of options of how to set up your compost (in a bin or even in a pit in a shaded area of your yard), but I’ll share our specifics just to make things easy if you want to use the same products. We used this inexpensive outdoor open bin, which our kids enjoyed helping set up. We keep this bin on our kitchen counter to collect our “green” kitchen scraps, and then when it gets almost full and we dump them in the bin outside, we grab some handfuls of dry pine needles (about twice the volume of the kitchen scraps) to throw in with them, and drape a small tarp loosely over the top of the contents of the outdoor bin so that it gets a little moisture inside without getting soaked when it rains. We turn the contents of the bin every 2-4 weeks with this pitchfork. We’ve only been composting for a couple of months, so our product hasn’t fully turned into soil yet, but it looks like it’s on the right track. We get some fruit fly-looking bugs flying around the pile but from what I hear it’s normal to have some bugs, and the number hasn’t gotten out of control or bothered us.
And that’s it! Shorter than my usual posts. We’re not composting experts, but there’s really not much to it, so I wanted to go ahead and share to encourage others to give it a try too. Feel free to reach out with tips, insights, or questions, and happy composting!