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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.

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