If you are going to have raised garden beds (or any type of garden for that matter), you need to be able to deal with the extra refuse that comes from all those delicious vegetables and return nutrients to your soil that have been depleted. To complete the circle of life… compost! I will cover three different types of composting in this post but it is worth some internet research, as there are many varying and innovative ways to accomplish this task. The methods we’ll talk about here are aerobic, anaerobic (trench) and vermiculture.
When most people think of composting, the image that pops into their mind is some variation of the aerobic method. Think piling up your scraps, mixing in some carbonaceous material and turning it over periodically. Generally speaking, you want an approximate 50:50 ratio between kitchen scraps (typically nitrogen heavy) and shredded paper, leaves, dried grass clippings, etc (all carbon heavy). Mix your materials well, pile them in an area that won’t be disturbed, and let the microbial magic start! You can build your own compost bin by using wood slats, or wire mesh… just make sure it is constructed to allow plenty of air flow into your pile, since oxygen is what is expediting the work of compost-producing microbes. Your bin should be approximately 3-4′ rectangle, with three sides closed in and open/accessible on the fourth side. Another option is the compost tumbler, which we use. It allows easy aeration and mixing action, as well presenting a better visual impression of your steaming pile of… vegetables.
A second method of composting that doesn’t rely on oxygen to enable the breakdown of material is anaerobic or trench composting. This method takes longer to produce a finished product, but benefits include the lack of any infrastructure requirement (except a shovel) and no need for pile maintenance. Basically, you dig a hole or trench in your existing or future garden spot, fill it with your refuse, and cover it up as you go. There are several techniques for trench placement, including the one I recommend (see graphic below) in which you alter your trench, walking space and planting rows yearly in order to plant in the row you composted the prior year. This puts the nutrients right where you need them, allows your soil to build itself up naturally, and requires very little effort on your part. Just make sure you fence out your dogs, or at least teach them not to dig!
The third method of composting doesn’t rely on bacterial action at all, but instead a mess of red wrigglers or other worms of your choice. In this case you aren’t actually creating compost in the traditional sense, but instead are feeding the worms your excess and taking advantage of their “castings”… aka worm poop. There are several commercial worm bins available for sale, basically a bottom layer to collect the liquid byproducts (which make wonderful fertilizer, by the way) and a set of stackable trays. You start with the bottom tray, adding a bunch of waste and paper products, then add your worms. A lid goes on the top to keep sunlight and flies out and worms in. When one tray gets completely full, you add a second layer to your tower. The layers have holes in the bottom, allowing the worms to work their way up to the next layer… eating and pooping to their heart’s content! By the time you add your third layer, the bottom layer is about finished and can be removed and used. The biggest benefit to vermiculture (a fancy word for “worm hugger”) is that you can compost this way in your garage, screened-in porch, etc. No smell, little mess and the worm’s population numbers are self-regulating, however it does take a significantly longer time to produce compost in usuable amounts than aerobic composting.
Lots of people have questions on composting, here are some common ones we’ve asked before:
Q: Is composting worth it?
A: Absolutely! It feels great to use all that kitchen waste for something useful instead of running it down through the sink disposal. You get the most “all natural” inputs for your garden available for free, and your plants benefit greatly.
Q: What shouldn’t I compost?
A: Everything will break down eventually, but some items aren’t worth the time and/or risk. For example, avoid dairy products because they take forever to decompose and they stink. Meat byproducts and bones attract pests and take a long time to break down. Don’t throw dog poop or cat litter in there, it smells and can have unintended consequences (disease, worming medication kills benefitial organisms, etc).
Q: Do I need anything else to get started?
A: The only thing I haven’t mentioned yet is a 1 gallon stainless steel pail to collect kitchen scraps before taking them out to your composter of choice. These are commercially available, cheap, and come with charcoal filters to eliminate smell. Ours stays below the sink for ease of access, and our family of 4 fills it up about once per week.
So there you have it… three different methods to turn waste into productive, beneficial compost. There are a ton of online resources out there, including “What’s Good For My Compost”, a similar list with space to write pile turning dates, and The Composter Connection website with links to all things compost. If anyone has any questions, input or ideas to add to the conversation, please feel free to comment!