Turn food and lawn scraps into garden nourishment
A tumbler bin cures compost faster, containing the pile neatly and speeding aerating with the crank of a gear-drive handle. The galvanized-steel and high-density-plastic barrel shown here tumbles approximately 6 bushels (about two 30-gallon trash bags full) of organic waste.
The lush vegetable and flower beds of the PBS series, The Victory Garden, owe much of their verdant splendor to the humble compost bins out back. Throughout the growing season in his gardens, former Victory Garden host Kip Anderson (the show's new host this upcoming season is Jamie Durie), regularly tosses vegetable scraps and plant trimmings into frames hand-built of wire fencing and pressure-treated 2x4s. Inside, billions of micro-organisms — nourished by air, rainwater, and those yummy bits of garbage — decompose the waste. While not safe for human ingestion (gardeners should be sure to wash their hands of the bacteria in the rotting foods), the result is rich with the nutrients that feed plants.
Anderson uses a hands-off method that lets compost evolve at nature's pace. The only thing he does, apart from collecting food and plant remains, is to periodically add layers of dry materials, such as straw
or dead leaves, to the wet waste. This provides airflow, giving aerobic
microbes—the most efficient compost-makers—enough oxygen.
"If you pile the wet stuff on without layering, air can't penetrate and you get a slimy mess," Anderson warns. Without air, anaerobic microbes — which don't need oxygen — take over. These also decompose organic matter, but the process takes longer and the mound emits a putrefying stench.
More aggressive composters turn their heaps regularly to add air to the
mix and hasten pay dirt. An even faster, albeit more complicated,
approach introduces red worms to the bin. But Anderson conserves his
energy for the fall, when he hauls at least 10 wheelbarrows of black gold from each bin to spread over The Victory Garden's beds. There's no cheaper way to improve the texture of the soil and its ability to take up water and nutrients than to add backyard compost to the garden periodically. "It takes a full year for a season's waste to decompose," Anderson admits. "But in this case, the rewards of laziness are great."
The Basic Ingredients
Successful compost results from a careful blending of "greens" and
"browns." Greens are wet, nitrogen-rich materials, such as vegetable scraps, small weeds, plant and flower trimmings, and grass clippings. Browns are materials high in carbon, including straw and dried leaves, dead plants, coffee grounds, tea leaves, and tea bags (the paper will decompose)—even used paper towels.
According to the U.S. Composting Council, a mixture of three parts
browns to one part greens provides a balance of nitrogen and carbon
suitable for feeding the microbes. Layer the dry brown materials in with
the wetter green ones so air can circulate freely through the pile. If
you detect an ammonia smell, aerate more actively.
Never add weeds that have gone to seed, ashes (too alkaline), barbeque
coals (high in toxins that kill organisms), dog or cat waste, large pieces of wood, or bones. Animal products can only go in a digester, a bin with a slotted basket buried underground from which nutrients pass to the surrounding earth.