Raising eco-consciousness one week at a time

Friday, April 29, 2011

Maintaining Your Backyard Compost in the Colorado Climate

So far this month, we’ve blogged about why compost is so good for the earth, how composting reduces your climate change impact and how to make your own nutritious compost with the help of worms, even if you don’t have a backyard.

This week, we’re covering the best practices for backyard composting in the Colorado climate.

(For those who want to learn the basics of backyard composting, we recommend Let It Rot! by Stu Campbell and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Composting by Chris McLaughlin.)

Eco-Cycle's composting
expert Dan Matsch
Colorado’s dry climate and large temperature swings require a backyard composter to have a different approach than elsewhere in the country, says Eco-Cycle’s very own organic farming and composting expert, Dan Matsch.

Before coming to Eco-Cycle, Dan was an organic farmer for 13 years and owned Gem o’ the Field Organic Farm with his wife Carol. He sold produce, plants and flowers at the Boulder Farmers’ Market for the 13 years he farmed, and he served on the Market’s board for eight of those years.

Here are Dan’s tips for making the most of your backyard compost pile amidst Colorado’s ever-changing weather.

  • If you look in a book on the subject, they always talk about building a pile that will heat up by using a minimum ½ cubic yard of brown, dry material mixed with an equal amount of wet, green material. We almost never have a ½ yard of green material in our climate so this is impractical.
  • Likewise, if you buy a typical plastic compost bin and just use it as a trash can for compostable material – dump at random as you accumulate it – when you go to harvest you are likely to find that everything you dumped just dried out but didn’t decompose at all.
  • The key in CO is to add water every time you add material, and mix the new into the top of the older material every time. Two good tricks are to add a quart or more of water into your kitchen food scrap pail and swirl it around a bit before you take it out to dump (bonus – this makes it a lot easier to clean the goo out of the pail), and to keep one of those 3-prong hand-cultivator tools out by your compost bin so you can use it to incorporate the material into the pile.
  • Keep the pile uniformly moist right out to the edges.
  • A bin with fewer air circulation holes works better in CO to limit evaporation.
  • Ideal bin location is under a deciduous tree, providing shade in summer, sun in winter.
  • Bottomless bins that use the ground for the bin floor are easier to manage in CO – you’ll have a larger population of composting microbes and no chance of an anaerobic goo forming if you overwater.
  • Tumblers are a little quicker, but you really need two because you don’t want to mix fresh food scraps throughout – you’ll never get finished compost. Fill one at a time and let the other one complete the cycle.
  • DON’T PUT STICKS OR DRIED STEMS OR BONES IN YOUR COMPOST (fish bones are usually okay – see next bullet). They decompose at a much slower rate and will form an impenetrable mat when you go to harvest finished compost. Set sticks, stems and bones aside for curbside compost pickup or use a chipper shredder to make mulch out of it instead. Tip – you’ll have fewer dried stems to deal with if you clear plants out of your garden beds BEFORE they get woody and dried up. Chopping garden waste with a spade in a wheelbarrow speeds decomposition and reduces the chances that it will form a fibrous mat in your compost.
  • Small quantities of meat and dairy can be okay to add once you have some confidence in operation of your system. Many advise against this and as a beginner you may want to avoid it. The main reason to avoid is to keep wildlife out of your bin. If your compost bin only has thin slits for air holes (too small for a mouse) and you don’t typically have a problem with  wildlife getting into your outdoor trash can, you may want to give it a try.
  • I call this the lazy, slow and simple system. You don’t worry about trying to get the pile to heat up; your focus is on uniform moisture throughout the pile and throughout the year (like a wrung-out sponge at all times – if you squeeze your compost in your hand, you just barely get a few drops of moisture out). This is actually the exact same management style as if you had outdoor composting worms.  In fact, if you have one of the “bottomless” compost bins you may well find that worms have moved in when you go to harvest.  If so, just continue to manage it just as you have been doing. The worms will inhabit the top portion of the bin if you keep it moist enough, allowing you to easily harvest the finished compost out of the bottom of the bin.
  • Most importantly, just be attentive and allow yourself time to learn. If you spend 30 seconds spreading and mixing in the new material every time you empty your kitchen pail and don’t put in anything you’ll regret, you can expect that the bottom half of your compost bin will be completely decomposed and ready to spread on your garden when you go to harvest. I do this just once a year in the spring, though you can do it in the fall instead if you prefer.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Composting with worms, without a backyard

Happy “Let’s make Earth Day Every Day” Day! ;)

Earlier this month, we gave you the many benefits of composting, including how it reduces your climate change impact. This week, let’s talk about how to make your own compost, even if you don’t have backyard space!

About Vermicomposting

Vermicomposting, or composting with red worms (Eisenia fetida), can keep your compost pile compact and contained, perfect for those living in an apartment or those who live in the mountains and want to compost indoors so as not to attract bears.

These red worms eat your leftover food and poop out a fantastic fertilizer. Worm castings (a.k.a. worm poop) make soil nutrients and beneficial microbes much more readily available to plants than regular compost. They're the best compost in the world!

Here’s a quick rundown of what you need to know to start your own vermicompost bin, in Q & A style.

Q: How do I get started?

A:  First, you need a worm bin (which is very different from a backyard bin). They are available online for anywhere from $50 – $200, BUT you can make your own bin for a fraction of the cost using an inexpensive plastic storage bin with a lid, like a 10-gallon Rubbermaid® Roughtote® storage box (pictured) using these guidelines:

  • You want to match the size of the bin to the amount of food scraps you generate. A typical storage box is a good fit for a two-person household. Allow 3 square feet of surface area in your bin for every pound of food scraps you generate per day, and any bin should be at least 10" deep.

  • Worms require darkness, so you need a lid.

  • Worms also need oxygen, so drill five holes on top and five holes in the bottom using a quarter-inch drill bit for every square foot of feeding surface area inside.

  • The holes on the bottom will also serve to drain excess moisture (make sure they are at the low point!), so you need something under the bin to catch the leachate. It can be another container of the same size and shape as the bin on top.

  • Don’t use treated wood or toxic finishes to build your bin.

Q: Where can I buy worms?

A: We recommend purchasing worms locally by heading up to Fort Collins to meet our local worm expert and Eco-Cycle® supplier, John Anderson (970-407-9076). A pound of worms (roughly 1,000 worms) is a good start for most households. You can also find several worm growers online if you search for “compost worms.”

Q: I have all my supplies. What’s the first step?

A: Have your bin ready before the worms arrive. Create a layer of bedding several inches thick using strips of moist newspaper. Mix in a small amount of soil or finished compost for the worms to ingest into their gizzards—they need this to digest their food. Then add a small amount of food scraps and watch them go to work!

Q: How do I know when it is okay to add more food? What can I do to make sure my compost stays healthy?

A: Use your nose! A healthy worm bin should smell like fertile soil. When feeding, don’t get too far ahead of the worms, especially when establishing a new worm colony. Wait until you see more castings (which look like dark, rich soil) than food at the top of your bin before you feed them again. Under good conditions, a worm can eat about half its weight per day. So, if you just bought a pound of worms, be patient and let the population grow. Worm populations can double every two months under ideal conditions.

If your bin smells overwhelmingly of rotting food, you are probably feeding your worms faster than they can eat. Remove excess food so you don’t have more than a one-inch layer of food in your bin and keep an eye out for mold—worms won’t eat food once it spoils. The moisture level of your bin is also very important; make sure excess water is draining out of the bottom of your bin.

The best advice is to stay attentive. Don’t be afraid to gently rummage around in your bin to assess conditions. You are maintaining a whole ecosystem of critters when vermicomposting; the worms are just the most visible inhabitants. If the worms are climbing the sides of the bin in large numbers, they are trying to tell you that conditions aren’t right. Channel your “inner worm” and trust your instincts—you’ll keep everybody happy and healthy.

Q. How do I harvest the castings?

A: Worms live in the layer between finished castings (below) and food scraps (above), so unless you invest in one of the “worm condo” models that have drawers that can be removed once filled with finished castings, you will need to temporarily remove the worms and the layer of partially-digested food to get at the finished castings below. Keep in mind that worms respond to light by burrowing down (and faster than you might think), so make sure you are ready before you lift the lid. You’ll need a place to put the worm/food layer (the lid or a tarp), a container for the finished castings, a small garden fork, and a trowel.

   1. Remove the worm/food layer. Worms create colonies, so the less you disturb them when harvesting, the faster they can recover. Scoop out this layer as intact as possible and set it aside carefully.  Do not put it directly on the floor—you’ll sacrifice too many worms trying to pick it up later. A garden fork works best to do this because it will pick up the undigested food and leave the finished castings. If you are leaving a lot of worms, go deeper. Expect to remove a layer about four inches deep.

   2. Remove the castings. You may want to switch to a trowel for this step. You will probably see some worms down in the castings layer, but more than 90% of them should be in the food layer.

   3. Put the worm/food layer back in the bin, again as intact as possible to minimize disturbance.

   4. If you feel that too many worms are left in the finished castings, you can recover them by piling up the castings in a conical shape. Gradually skim a layer of castings off the cone as the worms burrow away from the light. (Hint: a strong light or bright sun makes this go faster.) When you start to see worms again, back off and wait for them to burrow further. If you are patient, you will eventually end up with a small pile of worms at the very bottom and a big pile of worm-free castings. (But, don’t be TOO patient. Finish this process in a few hours at most and get the worms back in the bin.)

Q: Won’t the bin get smelly? And what about fruit flies? Will animals be attracted to my bin if it’s out on the porch?

A:  Your compost won’t stink as long as it stays healthy. A small population of fruit flies is inevitable, so the best way to minimize this issue is to keep your bin outside. If you want to keep it indoors, choose a place where you can tolerate a few flies. You can keep their population in check by avoiding overfeeding the worms, which limits the amount of rotting material available for the flies to lay their eggs. Fruit flies also prefer a slightly acidic environment, so if you have more flies than you can tolerate, cut back on the amount of citrus, coffee grounds and other acidic foods in your bin. Or, build your own fruit fly trap (pictured).

Your worm bin is definitely a potential food source for animals like squirrels and, yes, even bears, if left outdoors. You’ll have to judge for yourself the level of bear activity where you live. If bears aren’t regular inhabitants of your neighborhood, you may be able to leave your bin outside undisturbed for much of the year and only bring it indoors in late summer and fall when bears are loading up on calories for hibernation. Squirrels are usually deterred by a good-fitting lid. Raccoons may be the most difficult to deter because they are so dexterous and persistent. If you see tooth marks on your bin or other evidence of a raccoon visit, bring your bin inside for a few weeks.

Have a question we didn’t answer? Check out “Composting in Apartments & Bear Country,” from the Eco-Cycle Times archives, or ask us below!

Next week, we’ll give you everything you need to know to start a backyard compost pile.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Boulder County SoilSaver compost bin sale, 4/17/11

Boulder County is having a great sale on a compost bin we highly recommend: SoilSaver! The county is selling them for $50/each, a great price you're not likely to find anywhere else. It's from 9 - noon at the Boulder County Recycling Center.

Learn more here.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Boulder County Composting Workshop, 4/16/11

Want to compost but not sure how to start? Check out Boulder County's Compost Workshop on Saturday, April 16, from 10 a.m. - noon. 

Space is limited. Register here, or learn more about composting at the County's informative web page here.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Compost: Reducing climate change, not just landfill space

Spring is here, as is Earth Month, and what better way to celebrate our planet than to give back to her?

This month, we’re covering everything you need to know about compost and how to do it at home, whether you have a backyard or not.


What is compost?

Compost is a nutritious soil amendment that provides your plants with natural food. It is created by combining carbon-rich “brown” materials like dry leaves and small twigs, with “green” materials like grass clippings and kitchen scraps. Natural composting, or biological decomposition, began with the first plants on earth and has been going on ever since. As vegetation falls to the ground, it slowly decays, providing minerals and nutrients needed for plants, animals, and microorganisms.

By having your own compost pile, you are taking would-be trash, like kitchen scrap and even tissues and other non-recyclable paper products and putting them to good use in the way nature intended. 

Making Our Soils Healthy

Compost improves soil, the lifeblood of our society. It has been shown­­­ to help soils retain moisture, provide nutrients to plants and vegetation, suppress plant diseases and pests, prevent erosion and promote higher yields of agricultural crops.

Did you know? Compost can...

  • suppress plant diseases and pests.
  • reduce or eliminate the need for potentially harmful chemical fertilizers.
  • promote higher yields of agricultural crops.
  • facilitate reforestation, wetlands restoration, and habitat revitalization efforts by amending contaminated, compacted, and marginal soils.
  • cost-effectively remediate soils contaminated by hazardous waste.
  • remove solids, oil, grease, and heavy metals from stormwater runoff.
  • capture and destroy 99.6 percent of industrial volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) in contaminated air.
  • provide cost savings of at least 50 percent over conventional soil, water, and air pollution remediation technologies, where applicable.
  • help combat climate change.

Learn more here 

Combating Climate Change

Composting is also one of the easiest ways to reduce your climate change impact. When discarded in a landfill, biodegradable materials decompose without oxygen, or anaerobically, and create the greenhouse gas methane, which has 72 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide over the short term! Composting keeps these materials out of the landfill, prevents these methane emissions and puts the materials back to good use. 

The impact is tremendous: If we all composted all of our biodegradable discards, it would be like shutting down 21% of U.S. coal-fired power plants!

Read our groundbreaking report, Stop Trashing the Climate, and join Eco-Cycle’s campaign against landfilling biodegradable discards, COOL 2012.

Next week, we’ll cover how to make your own compost, whether you have a backyard or not!