The Block Island Times

Soon it will be spring

Make more compost!
By Renée Meyer | Feb 01, 2014

Dear readers, welcome to my first gardening column of the New Year. I warn you though: it’s pure garbage.

Yes folks, it appears we are going to be hearing a whole lot about garbage in the coming months as both Block Island and the entire state confront the fact that we all produce far too much of it. Legislation is being proposed to mandate food composting, starting with large institutions such as colleges and hospitals and eventually spreading to restaurants and other businesses. The state landfill in Johnston, where Block Island sends its trash, only has an estimated 25 years before it fills. We can no longer kick the can down the road. (Apologies to those who have been recycling for years; I just couldn’t resist.)

There’s gold in that garbage, though — black gold. Evidently a major type of waste going into the Johnston Landfill is food scraps, and much of that comes from restaurants. Somewhere out there is an opportunity for some creative entrepreneurs. But that is on a grand scale, and I believe, that while we wait to see what happens with the proposed legislation, the baby steps we can make at home can make a great difference. According to the article about this issue in the Jan. 18 edition of The Block Island Times, so does the RI Resources Recovery Corporations (RIRRC). In that article, Sarah Kite, Director of Recycling Services at the RIRRC, is quoted as saying:

“Anything the island can do to encourage more backyard composting will result in reductions of food waste. Composting is beneficial to everybody.”

“Black gold” is an affectionate term gardeners have given to compost. Years ago, I wrote that “compost is the mainstay of organic gardeners.” However, it has spread well beyond that then still-small movement. Rich in nutrients, organic matter and microbes, it can transform ordinary dirt into the extraordinary. It can restore soils stripped of their nutrients and loam from the overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Best of all, it can be made at home, at least on a small scale, saving one money both at the garden center and at the landfill.

So why wait until someone says you have to do it? The only thing wrong with making compost is that all the articles on it make it seem so darned difficult. They somehow have turned the simple concept that all vegetable matter will eventually break down into a daunting science. One must have the proper set-up, the proper ingredients in the proper quantities, and a lot of muscle to turn garbage into gold. The mixture must be tossed regularly, the temperature must be right. Do I have to mail order worms? It is as complicated as baking a cake from scratch.

Or is it? A compost pile can be as simple as an enclosure made of cement blocks, spare wood, or a few pallets strung together, or as fancy as... well, evidently, $20,000 can get you a restaurant composter that can grind up, aerate and perform all kinds of other magical, excuse me, scientific tricks on hundreds of pounds of food scraps per day. Somewhere in between are those tumbler units that look like little green cement mixers.

The ingredients of a compost pile are important; but here again, the how-to articles go from the simple, vernacular of “green” and “brown” to the more scientific carbon-producing and nitrogen-producing. Let’s go with green and brown. “Green ingredients” (the nitrogen-producing ones) include raw vegetables scraps of any color as well as coffee grounds, eggshells and fruit peels. Sea-weed, grass clippings and manure are all nitrogen producers as well. “Brown ingredients” (the carbon producing ones) include dried, decaying leaves, straw, wood chips, shavings and even sawdust, but used coffee filters and paper towels will do.

There is some need to achieve a balance between the green and brown materials, but one can get a feel for this as one goes along. Too many fresh grass clippings added at the same time can end up a slimy mess.

The only things that shouldn’t get tossed into the pile are meat and dairy products, not because they won’t break down, but because they may attract rodents. But do realize that your compost will, ultimately, only be as organic as what you put into it. Those orange peels could be introducing chemical pesticides you may not otherwise have used in your garden. Likewise, it is not recommended to use sawdust or shavings from pressure treated wood.

And then there are the microbes and the worms, the ones who do all the magical work. They simply eat the raw stuff and poop out the good stuff. As they munch, heat is produced that not only speeds up the process but supposedly kills weed seeds and roots. (I’m not completely buying that, having had pumpkins come up in the roses, so we do take precautions by throwing weeds into another pile where they will have much longer to break down.) A few shovelfuls of ordinary soil from your yard introduced as a “starter” to a beginning compost pile will probably provide all that you need, and make them very happy as well. If not, one may add a bit of horse or cow manure. So, no, you needn’t mail order worms.

Another way in which the making of compost is made overly complicated is the tossing requirement. Tossing the compost aerates it and speeds up the decaying process, but one needn’t do this on a daily or even a weekly basis. A pile that is regularly tossed a few times per week can transform itself in a mere six weeks, but one that does not receive such attention will still eventually break down.

Even though it’s winter and the compost pile is somewhat dormant, we still add to it regularly, although, truth be told, this may be benefitting the deer more than the garden. At least we have diverted our food scraps from going to Johnston. A “garbage bowl” sits on the kitchen counter and gets emptied onto our pile every few days. It’s actually quite amazing how quickly that bowl fills up and since we are coffee drinkers, the daily coffee filter seems to provide plenty of “brown” material.

By the time we are ready to do our spring plantings, that pile will provide us with wonderful rich compost, returning the nutrients gleaned from it the year before in the form of edibles. All it took was a bowl, a pitchfork and some concrete blocks.

And so, I will end with a sage old saying: “What goes around, comes around.”

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