Motivated by the fact that organic waste is the second highest component of landfills (United Nations Environment Programme, 2013) and I was sending my yard waste and vegetable scraps to the landfill and then purchasing large bags of compost for my garden beds each spring and fall, I attended a six hour workshop on the making of backyard composting. One of the first things I learned was that yard waste and kitchen scraps can make up as much as 20% of household garbage.
It was an informative workshop but to be honest, as a new gardener, I was a little overwhelmed by the scientific lingo: nitrogen & carbon ratio, chemical energy, microbial activity, pathogens, mycorrhizae, protozoa, humus…
Returning to my summer garden of dead and dying plants, I lashed together some free shipping pallets in an out-of-sight corner of my small suburban yard. As I cleaned up my vegetable, herb and flowerbeds, I moved the plant matter into a heap in one side of the compost corner.
Meanwhile, I placed a bucket under my sink and instructed family members that all things related to plants were to now be deposited in the bucket, not the garbage. After a month of answering the nightly after dinner question, “Does this go in the compost bucket?” we developed the knowledge and more importantly, the habit of scraping our vegetable scraps into the bucket. There were comments and concerns about potential smells, disease and even possible critters living under the sink but the bucket was small and emptied every couple of days so those concerns never materialized.
My goal was to create “hot” compost, one that favored the growth of heat-loving microorganisms and killed most weed seeds and pathogens. A hot compost required considerable attention and energy: mixing the proper ratio between the brown materials (carbon) and the green materials (nitrogen), keeping the pile moist but not too wet and regularly turning the pile to introduce oxygen are all necessary components to establishing a compost pile that heats up to 150 degrees. My pile apparently never got hot enough because my first year effort resulted in a pile of decaying plant matter that eventually sprouted several tomato plants, squash plants and assorted weeds the following spring.
But once the plants were removed, I discovered that I had dark brown soil-like humus and moved this gardener’s “black gold” into my garden beds. Despite my failed attempt to properly employ the science of composting, the process of decomposition honored my inputs and created the desired output albeit with viable seeds that easily germinated. This process is called cold composting and is slower to decay and generally less effective at killing seeds and pathogens.
At last, I met the composting strategy that suits me best: let nature do the work. The “Lazy Composter” was born. Maybe when I retire, I will try to hot compost again. But until then, these are my tips for becoming a lazy composter:
1) Find a 3x5 location in your yard that will host plant debris for a year or two and has access to water. It’s not a picture of beauty; envision dried garden debris topped with slimy vegetable scraps. You don’t need a fancy compost bin but if you really want one, then build a 3 x 9 three-bin model for about $250. You can find the plans online.
2) Place a compost bucket under your kitchen sink. Over the years, I have used an array of containers and find that small plastic waste cans or buckets are best. They are larger than the smaller ceramic compost crocks selling for $30, which means you only have to empty it once or twice a week. Regular emptying also prevents odors, eliminating the need for a lid and charcoal filter.
3) Educate everyone in your household about items that can and cannot go into the compost bucket. This quickly develops into a habit and you will become aware of how deeply ingrained it is when you help with meal prep and clean up at someone’s house who does not compost. In that awkward silence that follows your inquiry about the compost bucket, you will feel a deep sense of anguish as you toss your compostable items into the garbage.
4) Gather lots of brown stuff (see below) and store near the compost pile. The rule of thumb: you add 2x as much brown stuff as green stuff. That is as scientific as I get.
5) The smaller the particles of your materials, the faster they will decompose. Lazy composters don’t really engage in time-consuming activities like shredding or cutting leaves and plant matter. I keep a pruner nearby and cut dried stalks small enough so they will at least fit into the pile.
6) Woody debris like small branches and twigs are usually chipped or cut into small pieces but again that is too much effort for the lazy composter. I cut branches into sections that fit into the pile and use them to hold air spaces – places where oxygen can get into the pile. Thick branches can be placed vertically, leaving the top portion uncovered (like a spoon in thick soup). Each time you add to the pile, you can move these vertical branches around to keep some air flowing into the pile. Smaller twigs can be tossed in as is but it is likely they will not decompose very quickly and you will have branches and twigs in your humus. You can leave them out and use woody debris to build a hugelkultur bed.
7) Build your pile by mixing rather than layering a bunch of brown stuff with a smaller amount of green stuff and create a base of about 3 - 5 feet wide. Continue to add to the pile until it is at least 3 feet tall. Soak the new pile with water until it is wet like a sponge (this will help to jumpstart the heat buildup).
8) Don’t use up all of your brown stuff unless you have more available! Keep some of the brown stuff on the side to mix in with the weekly green stuff you will be bringing from the kitchen. Continue to add to the pile throughout the year. Using a pitchfork, turn the pile every now and then, watering each time. The more often you do this, the quicker it decays. You will also discover all kinds of bugs – that’s a good thing. They are the real workers in the compost factory.
9) Sometime the following year, you will have smaller pile of dark brown humus. Contrary to what many believe, compost’s value is in its organic matter and not its nutrient density. Humus contributes to soil structure, aiding in water retention or drainage (depending on the type of soil), retaining nutrients from applied fertilizers and helping to balance pH. * Gardeners who grow organically can never make enough compost and usually have to buy in bulk. This composting effort is more about recycling organic garbage and keeping it out of landfills.
10) You do not have to wait for the entire pile to decompose before you move it to your beds. You can mix the humus into your garden beds and/or use it as mulch. Reserve some of the compost that is not completely decomposed as a starter for the next pile.
11) Obey the list of items you should never put in your compost. Some will attract raccoons and rats and others can introduce toxic pathogens into your compost.
12) Known for their interest in eating anything, dogs and cats should not eat from the compost pile. Some of the bacteria found in the composting process can cause seizures in dogs. Keep your pile covered with straw, an old sheet or a tarp if your dog insists on visiting the pile.
Composting your garden and kitchen waste does not have to be difficult or laborious. It is the most efficient way to reduce your overall garbage output and provides payback by improving the quality of your garden soil. It is incredibly rewarding to shovel the humus you helped create back into your garden.
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