Air and Water – Who Needs It?

By Amanda Streets

I was up extra early this morning to turn my pile. I’d been avoiding it all week. It’s unseasonably hot this week, even for Florida, and dry as a bone. But, my compost needs some TLC so out to the pile I went, pitchfork in hand.

pitchfork

What’s the big deal… why all the fuss? Compost happens… right? Do you really need to turn it?

The short answer is that yes, compost happens and will eventually happen without turning it. But is it the best way to compost? No.  I made this big heap of compost in my yard and I’d like to use it in my gardens sooner rather than later. And I’d like it to be as rich as possible in both nutrients and microbial life.

Simply put, your compost is an incubator for all sorts of tiny organisms that actually do the work on composting for you. They just need to be kept happy with the right balance of basic needs. Happy soil life, happy compost, happy plants.

The Air

Imagine holding your breathe for a few minutes? That gets pretty tough, doesn’t it? Just like you and I need air to live, your compost organisms do too. You can get more air into your pile by turning it with a shovel or pitchfork, or by giving your tumbler a spin. Alternatively, you could add large chunky branches and pieces of carbon to your compost. This will help get more air by creating spaces but some areas may still become oxygen-deprived. A quick fix is to put long PVC pipes with holes drilled in them into your compost pile with the ends sticking out the sides and top. The breeze will blow into those pipes, bringing it to more places in your compost. Many commercial compost sites avoid turning by aerating the piles with large blowers. The pipes I suggested above are an easy, low-tech way to mimic that.

Without air, your microorganisms start to die and your compost will become anaerobic, meaning organisms that don’t need oxygen to breathe will start to grow. The anaerobic organisms produce smelly gasses. No one wants a smelly compost pile including your garden.  A properly composting pile should smell like rich soil from the forest floor, not like alcohol, formaldehyde, rotting flesh or ammonia. Anaerobic conditions are also evident by a white ashy powdery layer in the compost with a dark black layer below it.

If you go to turn your pile and unpleasant odors waft out, it’s not the end of the world. Turn your pile, and make sure the moisture level is adequate and continue composting. If you have some good rich aerobic compost from a previous pile, add a few shovelfuls to help the good organisms get a jump start again. If not, it’ll be fine.

 

The Water

It may be tempting to just water your compost from the top. While this does add water to parts of the compost, it won’t be evenly moist. Dry pockets will be sure to form. Running the water longer probably won’t help either, since it’ll take the path of least resistance and go straight out of the pile. You’ll end up with a compost pile on top of a mud puddle.

Just like air, soil organisms need water. A dry compost pile won’t really compost until it gets moisture. When it’s too dry, the organisms actually die or go dormant. That means they aren’t working to make that compost for you. You’ll want to take care of those little critters so that you can use the compost.

just right compost
This compost is just right. 

When you build your compost pile, try to make it evenly moist, at about 50 or 60% water. A good way to tell is by doing The Squeeze Test. Take a nice handful of compost and squeeze it in your fist. If it clumps together like play dough, that’s perfect. This same squeeze test applies for each time you turn your compost too. Check it and water accordingly while you are turning it so water gets to all parts.

 

 

If water squeezes out between your fingers, it’s too wet. To remedy it, you can turn your pile to mix it up and add a little more carbon to soak up the moisture. A good way to prevent it getting waterlogged is to make sure you cover it, especially during a rain storm (unless it’s really dry).

If it falls apart in scompost drymall pieces or is powdery, that’s too dry. Turn it and water it at the same time. You might be surprised at the amount of water it will take to re-saturate a dry pile.  Just add the water, it’s important. If it was really dry, you might even consider adding water and turning half the pile, waiting a bit and re-wetting the pile, mixing up the already turned portion and checking it again for moisture, then finish turning it while continuing to water. Dry compost will repel the water at first, becoming hydrophobic just like sand.  If you cover the compost pile, it’ll help retain the moisture that is lost during evaporation. Just remember to check the moisture levels every week and uncover during the rain if it’s dry between turning (your compost organisms LOVE rainwater!)

 

Remember, if those soil organisms are happy, your compost is too. Try to manage the air, water, and ratios of green and brown materials and you will be successfully composting every time.

Resources:

http://mgsantaclara.ucanr.edu/garden-help/watering-hydrophobic-soil/

Young Professional May 2019 The New Composter Webinar Series Part 2, US Composting Council. https://www.compostingcouncil.org/page/youngprofessionals

Photo Credit: https://www.directcompostsolutions.com/what-makes-good-compost/

 

 

 

Composting for Newbies

by Amanda Streets

“Let’s start composting!” As if it’s as simple as all that… What if I told you it really was as easy as 1… 2… 3…? Making a pile of food scraps and whatnot in your yard ON PURPOSE can seem a little intimidating but I assure you, it’s really quite intuitive once you get started and it’s not too fussy if you follow some basic guidelines. I’ll help you get off on the right foot so you actually learn how to compost and avoid making a stinky mess. Are you ready?

number-one-gray-hi

Knowledge is power. Knowing a little bit about the magical process of composting will help you wrap your head around your new project.

There are two main inputs going into your compost:

Brown material (carbon) is anything that came from a tree such as mulch, small sticks, shredded white paper and brown cardboard, or dried leaves.

Green material (nitrogen) are your plant-based kitchen scraps like fruits and veggies, grains, coffee grounds and filters, tea and tea bags, grass clippings, green leaves and dead potted plants.

The composting process is really a bunch of different organisms such as fungus, bacteria, and earthworms eating and breaking down your food scraps and yard waste. Just like any animal, they need food, air and water to survive. The green and brown materials are their food; water is added as needed to keep the compost moist; and air is provide when you aerate the pile by turning it.

glitter-clipart-number-2-5

 

Gather your materials. Always start a new compost project by gathering your browns. Grab a few bags of leaves from a neighbor, empty the paper shredder at your office, wet and rip up your Amazon boxes… whatever form of carbon rich materials you choose, get them first. 

In the meantime, you can begin to save your green materials by placing them in a container in your fridge or freezer.  You can put them in an upcycled plastic container with a lid or a Ziploc bag. By the time you’ve gathered your browns, you’ll have saved a bunch of food scraps.

 

number_3You’re ready to start composting! Well, almost. You need to decide what type of composting system is right for you. Now, you’re not married to this system. It’s okay if you pick a cheap and simple way to get started then change it up later. That’s not important. The important part is that you got started composting. You can tweak your methods as you learn more. 

Once you’ve gathered your browns, put several inches of them as the bottom layer in your pile. They will form a big sponge in the bottom of your compost system. Add your food scraps and use an equal amount of browns to cover them like a blanket. This is really important. You should never be able to see your food scraps. This attracts flies and critters, and it can get smelly. It’s easiest to save a few days worth of food scraps to add all at once rather than little bits here and there.

Turn your compost every week or two with a shovel or spin the tumbler around a few times. Add water if it feels dry. It should feel like a damp, but not dripping wet, sponge. Once it looks like soil and smells like soil and there are no visible food scraps left, take a small bit of the compost, make sure it’s moist and place it in a Ziploc bag. If it molds after a few days, it is not done. If it doesn’t go ahead and use the compost.

soil

Questions?

Will my compost smell?

No, it shouldn’t be smelly. If you do detect an unpleasant odor, add more browns. You can either just add a few inches to the top or mix some brown material in and top with a few inches too.

Will my compost attract insects or rodents?

If you are following these guidelines and always covering up the food waste with ample browns you shouldn’t have any rodents. The brown prevents any smells and absorbs the liquid from the food waste.

You may get insects since many insects are decomposers, meaning that their main function is to help break down your compost into a soil like texture. Common composting insects are cockroaches (they won’t come in your house, don’t worry), soldier flies and their larva (see photo below) and millipedes which are technically not insects but arthropods. They, along with the fungus, bacteria and earthworms do the real work of composting. 

I’m going out of town for a month. Will my compost be okay?

Yes, your compost is going to be fine. Just make sure there’s enough brown material on top. Check the moisture (it should feel like a damp sponge) before you go and add water if needed.

How often should I turn my compost?

Every week or two is enough. You don’t need to be on a schedule with it. If you notice it’s really dry, it may be a good time to add more greens and browns, water it and turn it at the same time. That way you can make sure it’s consistently moist throughout.

Where should I place my compost pile?

Wherever it works best for you. It will need more water in the sun, but may break down faster. The important part of placing your compost system is access to water. One year I moved my compost pile behind my shed to hide it. Not only was it out of sight, out of mind, it was dry. My hose didn’t reach and I definitely didn’t carry buckets of water to it frequently enough to make up for this Florida heat. 

How to Start Composting

By Amanda Streets
January 4, 2019

Do you know why I love composting? It solves all of my troubles.  No food in the house? I can find it growing in my yard. Smelly trash? Put food waste in the compost instead, that’s the smelly part. Forgot to take my trash can out on trash day? It’s not full because I compost my food, yard waste and paper products. I ran out of potting soil to repot my plants? I made some from my compost. And the true icing on the cake is that I know what’s in it, it didn’t come from the store wrapped in plastic and it has no substantial carbon footprint going from production to garden. It’s fun and easy to make. There’s really no downside to home composting. A few basic tips and you’re ready to go!

The Four Ingredients to Great Compost

Every compost system – big or small, on the ground or in a container – needs the same basic components to make rich compost.

composting_backyard

Before you consider starting a new compost pile, start accumulating browns. These items were once a tree – brown leaves, small sticks, mulch, paper, cardboard, sawdust. They are high in carbon. The closer to a tree and less processed it is, the higher the carbon content. You will need less wood chips than shredded paper to get the job done.

The green, or nitrogen rich, material is a little easier for the average homeowner to gather. This includes coffee grounds, tea, fruit and vegetable scraps, grass clippings and grains. You’ll need a kitchen container to hold them in until you’re ready to take them to your compost. A repurposed tub, Ziploc bag or a fancy stainless bucket with a charcoal filter will all serve the same purpose. Some people keep this on the counter while others prefer the refrigerator or freezer.

The air and water are just as important as the green and brown compostables. Imagine that you are building a home for a pet. You’ll want a nice pen with air holes, and bowls for food and water. Without any of those essentials for life, your pet will die. It’s the same for compost. Your compost is full of micro-organisms that need your care, just like the pet, to survive. The greens and browns are the food, and they need to drink water and breathe air.

The Location

Don’t get too caught up in where to put your compost. Especially when you’re starting out, you want to actually start composting. If it’s not the perfect spot, you can move it later. Find a location that you can reach with your hose that isn’t too far off the beaten path so you won’t forget about it. I hid my first compost pile in the furthest corner of my back yard behind my shed. I had to haul water in buckets to it and I never checked it unless I was bringing my food scraps out. It was either too dry or too wet all the time.

Make sure that you have enough room to access and maneuver around your compost. You will need to turn it with either a shovel or a pitchfork and may require a wheelbarrow to move it. You don’t want to put your compost right up against a wooden structure like a fence or building since it’ll cause the wood to rot over time. Come out about a foot from a structure.

If you are using a pile method or a container with holes drilled into the bottom for drainage, ground contact is important. If you have a tumbler or completely enclosed system, a patio or paved surface is fine. A shady space will retain more moisture while a sunnier spot will dry out faster.

Check out Choosing a Composting System for Your Home to help determine which type of system is best for you.

Why Compost?

The trash keeps piling up, increasing the size of current landfills and asking for more. Resources are used to bag, pick up, dump, and store this trash for what seems like eternity. It’s a wasted opportunity.

epa trash graph
Based on 2013 data on total MSW generated (by material) 254 Million Tons (before recycling)

According to the EPA’s data, roughly 60% of trash in landfills is made up of organic matter that could be composted under the right conditions, and about 40% could very easily be composted in your backyard. You can repurpose the food and yard waste to improve your soil and plant health rather than sending it off to produce greenhouse gases in the landfill. Imagine if everyone composted…  The statistic under the circle graph could show a far lower amount of trash produced.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo Sources:

https://www.ohio.edu/recycle/composting-guide.cfm

Choosing a Composting System for Your Home

By Amanda Streets
December 5, 2018
compost sign pic

 

When choosing a compost set up for your home, you need to consider a few things:

  • How much space and what type of space you have available;
  • Large yard, small yard, or no yard;
  • How much green waste you generate from your kitchen and lawn or how much you want to collect from community sources and how much brown waste you can accumulate; and
  • Possibly the most critical aspect – what is your budget? The initial cost to get started may make the choice a lot easier although there are many wallet-friendly DIY options that work just as well as pre-fab products.

 

Open Systems

This wire ring is my personal favorite. It’s made from quarter inch hardware cloth rolled into a cylinder. I can move the compost around my yard and generate very large volumes close to where I’ll use it. I even put this in my raised bed once. When it was done, I opened it up and spread it. No wheelbarrow – so very easy.

wire frame pic

A 3 bin system can be made with scrap materials and be one, two, or three bins. The 3 section bin is popular because you actively add to one part, another part is waiting to be done, and the final section is at a different stage of completion, or is finished already.

wooden pallet pic

Either of these open systems can be so very cheap to make – you could even make a heap on the ground. They can hold a very large volume of materials – I just got almost 2 cubic yards of finished compost from my last batch. Because of the large size, open compost piles have the potential to get hot, so you can have more compost done faster. Ground contact helps earthworms and various microbial critters find their way naturally into the compost and also help break it down faster.

An open pile requires some muscle. It needs to be turned to prevent it from going anaerobic (without oxygen) to create the ideal environment for healthy soil organisms. Turning it requires either a pitchfork or shovel. Sometimes open systems get a bad rap because people say they attract unwanted visitors. Following good composting practices will minimize this – using the correct amount of carbon to keep the food scraps covered and preventing odors is the key.

 

 

Closed Systems

tumbler picTumblers are great. The compost is enclosed, it has a handle to turn easily, and this one is high enough to put a bucket or wheelbarrow under it so you can easily empty and use the finished compost. This particular set up is DIY and each side is quite large. No pitchfork required.

BUT the compost has no contact with the ground where it would get healthy earthworms and microbes to help break the materials down effectively. It can be easy to neglect adding brown materials to a tumbler too, since you aren’t layering like you would in an open system.

No outdoor area?

wormsVermiculture, or composting with worms, is a great option for people who may not have an outdoor space to put a larger compost system and for those specifically interested in worm castings. I have a stacking worm bin that I purchased but you can make one with cheap or repurposed materials very easily. Bokashi is another option. This is a topic for a whole other post, though.

 

Photo Sources:

https://shorebread.com/2013/04/12/create-a-compost-pile-a-do-it-yourself-guide-to-spring-composting/

https://nancyonthehomefront.com/how-to-start-a-compost-pile-at-home/

https://www.grow-it-organically.com/hot-composting.html

https://www.instructables.com/id/compost-bin/

https://hubpages.com/living/Tips-on-Raising-Worms-for-Compost-Red-Worms-Composting

January 9th

Intro to Community Composting in St. Pete w/ Special Guest MakeSoil

Interested in composting your kitchen scraps but don’t know where to start? Or are you a gardener or community garden that would like to start getting more organic matter to make more compost to grow more food? Maybe you lived in a community that offered municipal composting services and you don’t like the idea of sending your food scraps to the landfill. Come learn how community composting can provide solutions to these concerns and more.

Also, we will have special guest Josh Whiton from MakeSoil to talk about their community composting platform. MakeSoil is a decentralized solution to our food waste crisis, raising Soil Makers to turn the organic matter going to landfills into planet-saving soil instead. Their website connects Soil Makers with Soil Supporters. Find a community compost bin (or become on) on their map at www.makesoil.org

PCCA Community Composting Class located near downtown St. Petersburg, FL.

At a private home, please call 727-210-5367 for address. Please RSVP to this event to receive updates.

This class is taught by Pinellas Community Composting Alliance Co-Founder and Permaculture Designer Jen Andreani of the Bluehouse Regenerative Living Project.

Come learn how I collect friend’s and neighbor’s kitchen scraps and compost them with the help of the community. Community compositing diverts precious organic matter from the landfill, reduces greenhouse gas production, builds our neighborhood’s soils to grow more food locally, and creates resilient community connections.

This is a hands on workshop. You will learn what Community Composting is, how to start composting at an existing neighborhood compost hub or even start one of your own. Includes a tour of the community compost system with hands on composting experience. Please wear gardening clothes, closed toed shoes, and bring water.

Cost of Class is 2 Time Credits for members of the St. Pete Time Bank or a Suggested Donation $10 for non members to help support PCCA’s material costs and mission.

Visit www.stpetetimebank.org to learn more about how you can earn Time Credits by composting and other activities and fill out your application for membership.

The Journey Begins

Two women set out to tackle Pinellas County’s Logo Canva 1food waste. One home, one community at a time.  What can you, the individual, do to make the biggest positive impact? A lot of it has to with food and food waste. Join our community to learn how you can make a difference. Follow our blog if you are not local to Pinellas County, Florida, so that you can see the benefit of community composting and maybe start a community composting initiative in your area.

Our goal is to help people to reduce food waste through better habits of buying, growing, and consuming, and by learning to compost our food and yard waste properly.