Tag Archives: Composting

A Post-TG Treat: Compostables

Sometimes compost awareness goes out the window with holidays. Under pressure to prepare lots of food, people forget to separate organic scraps and toss them in the garbage can or visiting cooking helpers might be confused about what to do and discard it all.

It doesn’t have to be that way. A nice thing about even the most traditional of Thanksgiving dinners is that, apart from the turkey centerpiece, much of the fixings are vegetable based. That means lots of good, fresh food scraps for the compost bin. So why not proceed as you normally would? The extra load of scraps may mean adding more dry leaves and other carbon-based materials. Fortunately, there are lots of dry leaves to be had right now. If you’re saying, I haven’t started a compost bin yet, then use this holiday feast time to motivate you to start.

Start this weekend. You have a day and a half left. For a step-by-step guide to setting up an outdoor bin, read my June 2015 post (https://hkgardener.wordpress.com/2015/06/) and send questions if you’ve got them. For those with limited space, I recommend a worm bin, which I have on my balcony (they are also designed for indoor use). You can find instructions for setting up a worm bin at NYCzerowaste (http://www1.nyc.gov/assets/dsny/docs/indoor-worm-bin-composting-brochure-06340-f.pdf). At that same site, New Yorkers can find a listing of compost drop-off stations. The city has made a lot of progress in organizing compost collection in just the last year. For Hell’s Kitchenites, West 57th Street and 9th on Saturdays and West 23rd and 8th on Tuesday and Thursday mornings are probably the closest. Check the hours and seasons. The West 57th Street location usually stops some time in December. Finally, if you’re a community gardener, but your garden doesn’t yet compost, now is a very good time to establish a bin before winter sets in and while you have plenty of leaves to supply “browns.”

 

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Fruit and veggie scraps ready for a trip to the Clinton Community Garden food-scrap compost bin.

Labor Day for Gardeners

Storm Hermine gave us perfect gardening weather: soft, cool, fall-ish, and the garden, free of humidity and intense heat, and almost lacking in mosquitoes, was also free of the strife that can often be the background noise there. At the garden debris compost bin, I was overjoyed (really, truly) to find two gardeners cutting up plant waste and putting it in the bin and not in the trash. I was so moved to see this that I walked up to them and thanked them. They happen to be two very nice guys I’ve run into off and on at the garden but don’t know all that well. They told me that they were a little afraid of composting, afraid of not doing the right thing and so—having been yelled at—tended to err on the side of caution and the garbage can. This day, they had decided to go for it. They were being careful not to put in invasive weeds. I was consoling, telling them I know it could be difficult to tell what was what sometimes.* This led to questions about composting in general and how food-scrap composting works at the garden. I organize this side of our composting efforts and require gardeners who want to do it to participate fully in the project, not just drop off their food scraps (the how and why of this I’ll get into in an upcoming post on composting). The starting place is a lesson on how to do something that seems kind of simple but can go so wrong, especially when it involves ten or more people. The timing was right, I was there, and one of the gardeners was actually interested in getting a lesson. And now I have a new food-scrap composter/gardener. Some good labor was had by all.

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The food-scrap compost intake bin at the Clinton Community Garden. I use a garden fork to first dig food scraps in and later turn the material. After each addition of food scraps, I add a layer of leaves two to three times as thick as the food-scrap layer. These scraps are nicely chopped and have been eye-balled for bad stuff, like dairy, bones, rubber bands, and plastic bits.

 

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Here’s what I don’t like to see. Yes, these items are all compostable, they might even be organic, but what are they doing here? They weren’t spoiled or even wrinkled. A family of four could have gotten breakfast out of this compost bin. I chalk this up to a rogue “composter” who seemed to joy in dropping perfectly edible food in the bin once a week and not even attempting to cover it up. All my regular composters know to chop up their peels and rinds and that wasting food is pretty uncool.

*As a side note, I tend to take a broader view of what plant matter can and can’t go in than our particular setup allows. I will never, ever compost morning glory—though the flowers are endearing, the plant is deadly in its ability to self-replicate and strangle a garden—but I am comfortable with most roots and even some seed heads that come out of garden beds going into the compost as long as they are broken down and treated to a good smothering layer of leaves. If there’s space, I will sometimes dry out borderline weedy plants by hanging them up or laying them out on a hard surface in the sun.

 

 

 

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Bin Composting Step by Step

I refer to composting a lot in this blog, but only until recently, prompted by a reader, did I realize that I haven’t yet given any practical information about composting. Now that we’re heading into summer, a composting step-by-step is in order.

Plant food.

Plant food.

First, a little background: Growing up, I knew about composting as the semi-secretive operation that my father carried out on an overgrown strip of land to the side of our driveway. It was possibly an eyesore to the neighbors, but fortunately these were pre-Martha Stewart Living days and they didn’t complain. From time to time, I also leafed through a very ’70s-style book called Mulch that my father thoughtfully kept on a shelf in the bathroom (along with a variety of other garden literature). That was the extent of my knowledge and participation in composting.

About a year ago, I felt it was necessary to confront the old pile. By then, my father the gardener was no longer around to ask, but I’d become a composter in my own right and was curious about what my father’s work had produced. The first part of the journey into the depths of the pile was nightmarish. He had secured a seemingly indestructible plastic enclosure with metal stakes, now rusted. After a trip to the emergency room, so my husband, who was helping me, could receive a tetanus shot, we proceeded to detach a network of vines and tree roots that grew over and around and through the pile. In the end, I did get a little of what I was looking for: rich, crumbly humus that I put to use right away around newly planted shrubs. And the importance of pile placement was brought home to me. Trees and vines are opportunistic. They had been feeding on that pile for several decades. Some vine control earlier on would have left us more of the good stuff.

I bring up this story partly to illustrate that there are many ways to compost and what works best has much to do with the kind of gardening you do, what kind of space—and how much of
it—you have, and what materials you are planning to compost.

The guide that follows is based on the three-bin composting system for food waste that I set up at the Clinton Community Garden. It’s easily adaptable to a backyard garden.

Bin Composting 

Finding a space for your bin or bins: Well-managed compost does not stink, but it’s still better to place it in a low-traffic area, away from patios, windows, and curious kids and pets. Extreme shade, sun, and moisture are not ideal, but there are ways to work around those conditions if necessary. Bare earth, as opposed to pavement, is nice to have, but many urban gardeners, whose backyards are courtyards or balconies or rooftops, don’t have access to the ground. No matter, compost will still happen in the right kind of container (I will report on this soon in another post).

Fresh compost.

Harvesting from a Garden Gourmet.

Preparing the space: Clear away plants from the spot you’ve chosen and smooth out the ground. If you have trouble with rats or mice, you can rodent proof your composting area with hardware cloth, a heavy wire mesh. Use hardware cloth with quarter-inch holes. Lay the cloth on the ground and stake it in place. The bins will sit on top and should also be staked in (I’ll explain further on).

What bins to use and how many: I’ve had good luck with Garden Gourmet composting bins. If you have a little extra space to accommodate a round shape, Earth Machines are lower to the ground and broader at the base, which is helpful both for aeration and turning the compost. At the garden, I placed three bins side by side against a shed wall. A single bin might be enough for one household. The advantage to having two or more is that composting can continue after one bin is closed off for “cooking.”

Securing the bins: Garden Gourmets come with plastic anchor stakes, but I found these didn’t last long. To keep the bins in place, I used long coated metal planting stakes (slightly less than a quarter inch in diameter), which I cut to fit and ran down through each corner of the bins. These stakes also help retain the shape of the bins, which are made of recycled plastic and benefit from some extra structural support over time. To further discourage rodents and weigh down the hardware cloth, I filled in the spaces surrounding the bins with gravel and broken bricks.

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Decomposition in progress thanks to billions of visible and invisible creatures.

Now the bins are ready to receive food scraps and garden waste. At my garden, we compost food waste and garden debris in separate bins. We have so much garden waste that it would quickly overwhelm the Garden Gourmets, so vegetation is corralled in a large open bin where it breaks down over the course of a summer. In the enclosed bins, food waste decomposes rapidly and compost can often be harvested a few times over the summer.

 

What to compost:

Kitchen scraps.

  • fruit & veggie scraps (peels, skins, cobs, pits)*
  • egg shells
  • loose tea and tea bags
  • coffee grounds and paper filters
  • nut shells
  • food-soiled paper napkins

*For best results, chop up food scraps in your kitchen with a sharp knife before adding them to the compost bin.

What not to compost:

  • dairy products
  • meat and bones
  • animal litter
  • bread, cooked and uncooked grains, baked goods
  • liquified, slimy organic matter
  • compostable or biodegradable bags—they turn into a goopy substance
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A full bin soon to be closed off for “cooking.”

Layering is the preferred method for adding material to the compost bin. By alternating layers of “greens” and “browns,” you can balance nitrogen-rich material with carbon-rich material. Food waste and fresh green garden waste, like cut grass, is high in nitrogen and water. Dry leaves, newspaper, cardboard, and saw dust from untreated wood are all good sources of carbon. The recommended carbon to nitrogen ratio is 30:1, which may sound off-puttingly specific. Composters learn to eyeball it. For instance, for every new deposit of kitchen scraps, I add a layer of browns that’s about twice as thick. It also helps to dig into the pile before adding fresh material. I know when my calculations are a little off and the bin is too wet (the most common situation) because it will give off a slightly sour ammonia smell. The fix is to aerate the pile by digging and turning the material and adding more dry ingredients (shredded newspaper and dry leaves are the best for this). You will want to keep a container of browns nearby. Turning the bin once a week will speed along the process and keep all the bin inhabitants (the decomposers, the chewers, the tunnelers, and the diggers) active and happy.

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Browns at the ready.

Tools and materials:
Pitchfork, shovel, gloves, sifter, wheelbarrow, compost crank, hardware cloth, and bins

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The results: Nice dark compost. Time to sift it.

Garden Gourmet compost bins:
If you live in NYC, visit the Lower Eastside Ecology Center for discounted bins (http://www.lesecologycenter.org). You can order them and then pick them up at the Union Square Farmer’s Market.

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Why Compost? (And the People’s Climate March.)

Kitchen compost.

Kitchen compost.

Composting, like gardening, cuts across political and social boundaries. There are people who voted for Reagan who compost and have been doing it long before Reagan was in office! Why is it then that a good chunk of my fellow community gardeners (lots of liberal-minded New Yorkers) seem so resistant to the practice of composting? I write this out of my usual end-of-summer frustration. Every spring I have high hopes that composting will really take on in a big way partly because that’s the time of year most people ask me about it. But at summer’s end I can’t help feeling deflated by the quantity of garden debris in the trash bin situated next to the intake section of our large four-bin composter. Despite the inviting proximity of the composter, a lot of gardeners are choosing to put perfectly compostable garden prunings in the bin clearly labeled “trash.” Maybe the better question is not “Why compost?” but “Why trash it?”

I will not pretend that I’m immune to some of the reasons gardeners are using the trash can over the composter. Some are genuinely afraid of doing the wrong thing and I sympathize with that concern. We have some composting rules: garden material goes in the open-air four-bin system; food waste is collected once a week and goes in a separate series of enclosed composting bins (my area of expertise). Invasive weeds aren’t okay, and that means gardeners have to be able to recognize them. Seed heads and roots have to be trimmed off (to prevent weedy compost) and large plant pieces have to be cut up. This separating and cutting and occasional guesswork can get tedious, I know, but gardeners need to see it not as an extra but as the essential gardening task it is. I’m going to say that again: Composting is part of gardening. A vital part. If we’re gardeners, we have no excuse for being aware of composting and not doing it.

Sometimes getting people to compost (and to do it effectively) boils down to getting them to change the way they think and talk about compostable materials. More often than I thought possible, otherwise environmentally aware folks have asked me if I wanted some “garbage” for my compost pile. “Um, no, I don’t want garbage,” I say, “but I will recycle your fruit and veggie scraps for you and when it’s finished you can dig it in around your tomato plants.” There are well-meaning gardeners who nonetheless view my food-scrap composting operation as some kind of bizarre hobby. They see only the beginning of the process—putting rinds and egg shells into a box and closing the lid. Out of sight, out of mind. Just like a landfill.

Composting, of course, is the complete opposite of a landfill. It’s a dynamic process through which living things transform once-living things into a substance that can nourish other living things. A landfill simply fills up with stuff that could take hundreds of years to break down. Once degraded, the garbage in a landfill is not only of very little use to anyone or anything, it is likely to be toxic.

When I think about how to get people to take composting seriously and incorporate it into their daily lives, it’s very easy to get sidetracked with thoughts of policy making. It’s not that I wouldn’t like to see composting made official throughout the city, but there has to be a coherent plan for doing that, a plan that is based on education and accessibility. So, any sort of plan really has to start quite literally from the ground up with listening to the people who are or would be doing the composting—in their homes, on their fire escapes, and in community gardens.

Those of us running composting projects at community gardens see and hear what most policy makers probably don’t: We find out what inspires people to compost and what discourages them. Community gardens have a history of being the laboratories for urban environmentalism. We can incubate projects that demonstrate to the wider community how to take better care of our earth.

Okay, back to that first question: Why compost? There are so many answers. Here are some.

Plants like compost.

Composting recycles organic waste instead of adding it to landfills.

You can save money by making your own excellent fertilizer with ingredients you would otherwise be putting in a landfill.

Composting reduces your garden’s carbon footprint because you don’t have to rely on trucked-in supplies.

Gardening with compost enriches the soil, so plants can grow, providing nourishment, oxygen, and a holding place for carbon.

Taking care of the natural environment happens on many, many levels, from recycling kitchen scraps in a community garden to taking to the streets. This Sunday, September 21, I’ll be marching with thousands of others in the People’s Climate March to wake up our leaders to the crisis of climate change. Hey, Hell’s Kitcheners, the march goes right through our neighborhood! Looking forward to walking together with lots of other gardeners (and nongardeners too). For more information, including timing of events and route details, visit http://peoplesclimate.org/march.

Don’t trash it. Compost your fruit and veggie food scraps at the Clinton Community Garden: Tomorrow, Saturday, September 20, from 11 am to noon. I’ll be there to collect your compost and answer composting questions. Saturday compost collection of food scraps continues at the garden through October 11, 2014. I’ll be posting more information about where else to compost in Hell’s Kitchen soon.