Thursday, May 5, 2011

International Compost Awareness Week

Poster designed by Heather Lawrence, a student at the Savannah College of Art and Design

In honor of International Compost Awareness Week -- May 1-7, 2011, I thought I'd share an article of mine that was recently published in Pinpoint Publications' Zip Code Magazine in Las Vegas.

Keep in mind, this was written with the Vegas climate in mind. And, as a side note, while the plans are for us to start composting this spring, so far, we haven't yet set up our composting pile.

Waste Not, Want Not
A Crash Course in Composting

By Hana Haatainen Caye

In this age of eco-friendly living, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” is among the many catch phrases we hear quite often. In many homes where the recycling bins are fuller than the trash can, it’s practically a family crest. We commend those who take the time to separate their glass, plastic and paper, but what about grass clippings, apple cores and vegetable scraps? While organic matter is biodegradable, it can also leach toxins into the groundwater when mixed with other materials in landfills.

Composting for Earth and Garden

Composting presents a novel solution to this problem, along with other key advantages specific to the arid climate of Vegas. Because of its unique, organic properties, compost soil helps the ground retain water, thereby lessening the need for watering and reducing plant stress from drought. It also fights erosion, promotes healthy root development, balances the pH of the soil and boosts the vitamin and mineral content in the food it nourishes.

Additionally, according to Dr. Angela O’Callaghan, Associate Professor at the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, “The Las Vegas Valley soils have low fertility and poor structure. In order to be productive, nitrogen and other mineral levels must be raised.” Traditionally, gardeners turn to chemical fertilizers to do this, but O’Callaghan cautions that these fertilizers can leach into the groundwater and cause nitrate pollution. Compost soil is a safe and natural alternative.

A Place in the Shade

In order to create a humus-rich composting soil to use in place of store-bought potting soil, you must first decide what kind of composting container you want to use; you can use anything from an open compost pile made out of wooden pallets to a costlier “tumbler” composter, available at most home improvement stores. Your selection will depend on the size of your space, how much biodegradable material you dispose of, and how much compost you ultimately need.

Finding an ideal location is next on the to-do list. A shady spot works best, because the compost has to remain moist in order for the microorganisms to go about the business of decomposition. Find a place with adequate drainage and make sure not to position it close to a wooden fence or building, as it will cause the wood to rot over time.

Compost Chemistry

Once you have the container and location all sorted out, it’s time to start filling it up with the right blend of materials. Biodegradable waste falls into two categories: ‘brown’ materials, which add carbon, and nitrogen-producing ‘green’ materials. These materials are as follows:


• Shredded dried leaves

• Sawdust

• Toilet paper, paper towels and their cardboard rolls

• Wood ash

• Shredded paper

• Dryer lint (use only if no fabric softeners are used, due to the toxins)

• Cardboard (including egg cartons)

• Chipped wood

• Hay and straw


• Grass clippings

• Weeds houseplants and dried flower bouquets

• Manure (from herbivores only)

• Tea bags

• Coffee grounds and filters

• Shredded green leaves

• Fruit scraps

• Vegetable scraps and water from cooking

According to The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Composting, you’ll want to shoot for a 50/50 mix. This will ensure that the right temperatures will be reached so the compost pile can slowly simmer. If you add too much green material and the pile becomes excessively wet, you might end up with foul odors coming from the compost. Rather, your compost should have a sweet, earthy smell. If the smell is less than pleasant, your pile needs to be turned more often. If the issue is excessive moisture, the addition of shredded non-glossy paper or straw will bulk up the pile and aid in aeration.

To avoid attracting bugs or rodents, always bury your food waste at least 6 to 12 inches under your yard waste. Dr. O’Callaghan also recommends placing a thin layer of diatomaceous earth, a natural insecticide available at garden, pool and home improvement stores, on top of the pile to keep insects at bay. The main thing you want to avoid is putting any kind of meat or protein in your pile.

Gardener’s Delight

Now comes the fun part. When your compost turns into a dark brown or black, crumbly soil, it is perfect to use in your vegetable, flower and container gardens. It is also ideal for spreading around your trees and shrubs. By placing it directly on top of your soil or mixing one to three inches of your compost into the top soil, you will improve the texture and aeration of the soil, as well as the quality of your plants.

Composting is the most natural way to live by those three, earth-friendly words. By creating and using compost, you can reduce the amount of trash in our landfills, reuse your discarded food scraps, and recycle nutrients back into the earth. Plus, you’ll always have nutritious home grown fruits, vegetables and herbs to add to your healthy, ‘green’ diet. You just can’t go wrong!

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