Last weekend, we went to a composting class offered by Santa Clara county, Full Circle Farm volunteers, and the University of California Cooperative Extension. This is our first time with an actual yard of which to speak, so we wanted to learn more about how to compost. They offered lots of useful tips, including:
– A good compost bin consists of four elements: greens (nitrogen-rich materials), browns (carbon-rich materials), air, and water.
– You want about a 50/50 mix of “greens” and “browns,” but when all else fails…
– “Stop thinking and just compost!” (a slogan that would make a great bumper sticker)
– Tree clippings and other yard waste can go into a hot or cold yard compost, but it helps if you break the larger pieces down into 6″ (for cold compost) or 2″ (for hot composting) segments to avoid taking up too much space in your bin (and making the perfect nest habitat for rodents).
– You can put eggshells and other food waste in your compost bin, but you shouldn’t add meat, bones, or dairy because the smells will attract animals and pests. Avoid using wood ashes because they will upset the alkaline balance of your compost. (Avoid putting feces in it.)
– You can use a pitchfork, shovel, wing digger, or your hands to mix up the compost from time to time (maybe every week or two) to make sure that air circulates into all the layers of your bin. (Too much air space in the bin will dry out your pile, meaning it will take longer to turn into compost.)
– If your bin is open at the bottom, you can use a galvanized steel screen (or hardware cloth) to prevent animals (such as roof rats?!) from burrowing up through the ground into the nest of food you are preparing for interested creatures.
– If your bin is open at the top, figure out something with a lid and weights or rocks to prevent animals from entering through the top.
We are using a blue garbage bin with holes drilled in it to cold compost our yard waste and some of our food waste from the kitchen (with bungee cords to secure the lid and keep out animals).
There was also extensive discussion of vermicomposting (composting with worms!). We tried to do this in Illinois, but sadly the worms all froze. We learned some great vermiculture tips at the class:
– We are using a 10-gallon Rubbermaid bin with a lid for two people, which seems to be working out fine so far for food / kitchen waste.
– Keep your worms in a shady area that’s not too hot or too cold (55F – 75F is an ideal range). Under the kitchen sink seems to work well.
– Line your bin with bedding for the worms, specifically dampened newspaper (don’t worry – they use soy-based ink!), shredded paper or paper towels, cardboard (like paper towel rolls, pizza boxes, or egg cartons), and junk mail (just not the glossy or plastic parts). The Worm Dude (his real name) said “You can give worms too much food, but you can’t give them too much bedding!”
– If you’re local, you can get worms from Blue Ridge Vermiculture, Common Ground in Palo Alto, the Sonoma Valley Worm Farm, or The Worm Dude (not kidding). We got ours from The Worm Dude (2 lbs of worms for $25).
– The worm colony will grow to fit the bin and the amount of food you give them. According to The Worm Dude, you should start two pounds of worms off with two pounds of food and go from there.
– Be sure to add dirt, coffee grounds, or some other kind of grit to the bin to help the worms break down the food in the container.
– Most kitchen waste / food is fine for worms, including eggs shells, tomatoes, rotten potatoes, banana peels, etc. They won’t eat the stems of leaves or the seeds of tomatoes, but those things won’t hurt your compost. (Avoid putting feces in it because that can be bad for your worms.)
– Worm castings (left behind, typically at the bottom of your bin, after the worms get through the food waste) are great to add to your garden or any soil that needs to be fertilized! Also organic, natural, local, etc. (depending on what you’ve fed to them…).
– You should harvest the worm castings when they make up about half the contents of the bin. (In our case, this should take 3-6 months, or once the bedding is mostly gone.) Castings are toxic to worms, so you’ll want to get the castings out and replace the bedding as soon as your bin reaches the halfway(ish) point.
Since the temperature here is a bit more amenable to the non-death of worms, we have set up a pretty sweet compost bin in our kitchen. So far, the worms seem to be doing well, except two little ones that cling to the lid and seem to want to escape, which is silly because the food is the other way, little dudes!
Hope you’ve enjoyed this tangent from research. Let me know if you have other worm-related or composting tips!