May 1 – 7, 2022 is International Compost Awareness Week. Check out guest blogger, Dan Martens’ tips for composting using a standing plastic bin:

It’s safe to say that no two home composting systems—or home composters—are the same. The following is based on my experience composting in my Connecticut backyard (Zone 7).

When starting anything new, it’s reassuring to have a mentor. I was fortunate to have excellent advice from the University of Connecticut’s Master Composter program. Although I’ve long been  composting garden debris, I didn’t focus on composting household food scraps until my town offered a program to purchase a freestanding plastic backyard compost bin. I’ve been composting for three years now, and have produced beautiful rich compost.

Plastic bin by Compost Coyote

Here are my tips and observations—as with any new hobby, the fun is in learning for yourself, so see what works best for you.

Collect compostables. Start collecting food scraps in a container with a lid a month or two before you start to fill your compost bin. Do not add foods such as meat, fish, dairy, oils and grease; they can attract animals or restrict airflow in your pile. Food scraps can be frozen until you’re ready to build your first pile. Make a brown leaf pile that you can pull from all year. Do not include any leaves that have been treated with herbicides or other chemicals. You’ll also need sticks and/or bulky wood chips for the base of the pile and a good amount of food scraps and leaves for the first build.It’s best to start simple with a step-by-step approach, so just focus on two feedstocks—food scraps and leaves.   

Assemble tools. You’ll definitely need a watering can, pitchfork, rake, compost aerator, containers and a garden cart.

Select bin. A compost bin with a removable lid is a simple way to keep compost neat, safe from animals, and protected from the elements. I think a 3’x3’ bin is the minimum size for getting a good pile going.    

Locate spot. Place your bin on level ground in a sunny to part shady location. If you do not have a flat spot, grade one with a shovel, then make a second flat spot adjacent to the bin.  

Start building. I build/rebuild my pile with the layering or “lasagna” method. Start with bulky sticks or wood chips next to the ground, then add a 4-inch layer of leaves. This base provides air flow and insulation. Everything the pile will need is in the feedstocks (food scraps and leaves).

Layer feedstocks. Place a layer of food scraps on top of the leaves; add another layer of leaves and lightly sprinkle with water. Continue alternating the layers: leaves/food scraps/water and repeat. Your layers should have 2 to 3 times more leaves than food scraps. So, in your compost lasagna, the leaves are like the noodles. Sprinkle with water after each set of layers, but do not oversaturate.

Color coded pile layers – leaves, compost, food scraps, water. Place food scraps in the middle.
  • Build the middle. Keep the layers going until you run out of food scraps. Spread the food scraps evenly, but always keep them toward the middle of the layer. If you don’t have enough food scraps, use mostly leaves; you can balance the pile over time. Finish the pile with a layer of leaves, about 5 inches from the top of the bin, to allow air flow. Do not finish with a food scrap layer. Food scrap layers should only be in the middle which discourages animals from trying to gnaw into the bin, and also helps build heat. If you don’t have enough food scraps to get started and you do have garden greens, it’s fine to use them as long as they have not gone to seed. A high nitrogen fertilizer, like blood meal can also be used – 1 cup for every 4 to 6 inch layer of leaves.
  • Keep microbes happy. The microbes in the organic matter (feedstocks) are key to decomposition; it’s important to feed them a proper carbon-nitrogen ratio. The goal is to have a balanced carbon-nitrogen meal. Think of leaves as the carbon source and food scraps as the nitrogen source. The food scraps and the leaves should be roughly equal by weight. However, food scraps weigh more than leaves, so for a good balance you will need about 2 to 3 times more leaves than food scraps. A balanced recipe provides a good meal for your microbes; they will eat it all, and the compost at the end will be balanced. If you add a 1-inch layer of food scraps, then add about a two to three-inch layer of leaves. The correct ratio will prevent most basic problems with the pile and will keep the microbes happy.
  • Aerate. After the food scrap layers have had time to break down from the build, you can aerate the pile. What is the proper time to allow before aerating? If your pile has dropped down 25%, or if a couple weeks have passed, give it a fluffing. Your geographic climate or season impacts your pile’s unique composting rate. If you aerate too soon, you may disrupt both the layering from building the pile and the heat generated by decomposition. There are no hard and fast rules; however, neglecting your compost is not a good idea. If you maintain the pile, you will avoid some smelly problems. I generally aerate every 1 to 2 weeks and add some water. To aerate, use a compost aeration tool or just push in a strong stick and wiggle it around. You don’t want to mix the pile and upset the layers; just loosen it up so that some air can get in. If you set your compost table, the microbes will have a party!
Compost aerator with some finished compost. Photo by Compost Coyote
  • Feed. Remember decomposition takes time, so have patience. With a closed bin, you have two options for feeding your pile: the weekly add-in process or the batch process. If you add food scraps weekly, put them in the middle of the pile with plenty of leaves of top to conceal odors. When I first began composting, I used the weekly option, adding twice the amount of leaves than food scraps. This was a good way to start because I had more leaves in my pile than food scraps. Getting the pile going strong was tempered by the weekly interruption and the small mass of the inputs. Now I use the batch process. I save four or more weeks of food scraps in a closed pail and then feed the pile when my pail is full, about once a month in summer, then once in late in fall and once in late winter. In winter, on a warmer day, I add food scraps, leaves and water to the middle of the pile. I try to aerate the pile in winter unless it’s really freezing (then I don’t disturb it). My pile probably goes dormant, but I have never seen it freeze.
  • Prepare to turn & rebuild. When the pile has exhausted its composting activity, it’s time to turn and rebuild. How do you know when to turn your pile? I turn and rebuild my pile when my food scrap pail is full. In the summer, this is every 4 to 6 weeks, but in the winter I store my food scraps in the freezer until a nice late winter day. To make rebuilding your pile easier,have your components close at hand: full food scrap pail, leaf pile, watering can, pitchfork and rake. You’ll get dirty, so when you finish, wash off your tools and hands.  
  • Turn & rebuild. Lift the plastic compost bin straight up and off the pile and place it on the flat spot you made adjacent to your current pile. Now, with the bin empty, start the rebuild. The current pile, now exposed, will be about 30% smaller than the bin. It will sit in a neat column until you are ready to rework it with your pitchfork. Take materials from the current pile plus add new feedstocks to make a lasagna in the empty bin. Build the new pile in the empty bin the same way you started, but now add active compost as one of the layers. Repeat the original process: some bulk on the bottom, such as sticks, wood chips and leaves, followed by layers. On top of the base, add fresh compost from the pile, food scraps, leaves, more compost, and water. Repeat. Depending on the amount of new food scraps I have, I add in materials from the old pile that need more time, mixing them in with the new feedstocks in the middle of the pile. I finish with a topper of leaves and a light watering.
Turning out compost. Photo by Compost Coyote
  • Harvest. If you need to make room in your bin, or you want to harvest in early Fall, do so as long as you maintain a full compost bin with a rebuild so that you can maintain a full bin through winter. How do you know when compost is ready? Examine it. When the feedstocks are not recognizable as their original material, you have immature compost. Remove this good stuff and set it aside for curing and screening.  
  • Cure and screen. When you remove compost, it is immature. Let it sit for month to allow any active microbes to settle down and to balance the pH. I screen my compost to remove twigs or small stones. At first, I screened fresh compost straight from the pile, but it was damp and messy, so now I wait for it to dry a bit. Transfer the compost to a breathable container (or pile) to hold it for resting. Loosely cover the container so rain doesn’t wash the compost away. I screen with a homemade screen made from 1/4-inch wire cloth tacked to a 2 x 4-foot frame. I rub the compost through by hand.    
Dan screening his compost. Photo by Compost Coyote
  • Optimize!   
    1. Remove produce stickers before saving food scraps.
    1. Make sure there are no rubber bands, foil or plastic in food scraps.
    1. Chop food scraps and shred leaves to facilitate short-term heat build.  
    1. Aerate pile weekly without disturbing layers too much. Make sure to add water.
    1. Monitor temperature in the middle of the pile using a compost thermometer. After the first temperature spike, wait a week, then turn the pile, adding new materials as a chopped-up mixture mix of food scraps and leaves.    
  • Remember the goal.  Diverting food scraps from trash makes home waste management much more efficient and less smelly, plus diverting organic matter from household trash turns valuable organic matter back into healthy soil to fertilize gardens the natural way.
A favorite book of the author’s. Photo by Compost Coyote.

Learn as you go and find out what works best for you as you help the planet.  

Dan Martens, UConn Master Composter

Last week the 2017 Rhode Island Compost Conference & Trade Show was held at Rhode Island College in Providence organized by Greg Gerritt of the Environmental Council of Rhode Island and Jim Murphy, the Director of Sustainability at the college. I suspect that when most people think of composting, they think about that pile in the backyard or perhaps a larger bin at the community garden or school year. Some of the workshops and exhibitors at the conference did focus on small scale composting but the takeaway theme was the need for a larger and more regionalized compost infrastructure.

ri envir council

Sponsors of 2017 RI Compost Conference & Trade Show along with RI College Office of Sustainability

That does not necessarily mean larger composting operations but rather a larger network for moving compostable items to places where they can be composted and either used by the composter or distributed in some other manner.

Greg Gerritt

Greg Geritt welcoming folks to the conference

According to Rhode Island Food Strategy, about 35% of waste in that state consists of food and other compostables. Similar numbers have been cited nationwide. If not diverted from the waste stream, these items will end up in landfills or incinerators. Compostable trash not directly buried, may be incinerated first but then the ash is landfilled. Since the cost of hauling trash away depends on weight and food wastes are especially heavy, we as individuals or as a society are spending a lot of money burning and burying what really is the basis for an excellent soil amendment. Plus many landfills in New England are reaching capacity and the problems associated with them often makes them unwelcome neighbors. To this end, New England states including Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island have all passed legislation in an attempt to divert organic materials from landfills to composting facilities.

Our two morning plenary speakers were from SCS Engineers, a national environmental consulting firm. They gave us an overview of some compost technologies from open windrow to aerated static pile to in-vessel. Depending on the technology used, composting can be quite controlled and operations can be successfully sited in more urban locations. A most engaging concept promoted by this company was sharing. Expensive equipment like windrow turners and mixers were purchased by SCS and contracted out to multiple mid-sized compost operations which greatly benefited by using this equipment but would not have the funds to purchase them.

aeration system

Aerated static compost bins. Covered bins keep pests out and odors contained.

One version of community composting was covered by Michael Bradlee of Earth Appliance who set up a Compost Depot at Frey Gardens. Using those large (65 gallons I think) lidded trash bins, he set up a composting system in a small community garden designing a pipe system to aerate the bins so they could stay closed. As part of an urban initiative, folks were encourage to bring their food scraps to the compost site in covered 5 gallon buckets. They could exchange their full one for an empty one. Michael mixed the food wastes with leaves and would aerate the bins with either a hand aerator or power auger on a weekly basis. He kept records of the temperatures and adjusted his aeration system to keep the composting process active year round.

Karen Franczyk, the Green Mission Coordinator for the North Atlantic Region gave a presentation on how Whole Foods manages food scraps and I must say I was quite impressed and wished there was a store in my area. First, they work with other agencies in the community and donate any leftover food items pretty much on a daily basis. I don’t know what the numbers are in other states but in Rhode Island, 12% of the population is food insecure which means that these people do not know where there next meal will come from.

whole foods grind2energycollection tank

Whole Foods Grind2Energy holding tanks.

All discarded items are sorted according to whether they can be recycled, composted or put into the trash stream. Employees are educated about their disposal systems and the company has been participating in a zero waste day each year.

Some of the more urban stores have limited areas for storing compostables until they can be picked up so a Grind2Energy system is employed instead. All compostable food items are put through a large grinder, water is added when necessary and the slurry is stored in tanks outside the building. The slurry gets picked up and trucked to a dairy farm in Rutland, MA which uses it to produce methane to heat their operation and also as fertilizer.

The closing speaker was Lorenzo Macaluso from the Center for EcoTechnology. This private, nonprofit provides free assistance to help businesses and institutions implement programs to divert waste food from disposal. He noted that for food waste diversion programs to be successful they depend on policy, infrastructure, education, technical assistance and regulation. All these pieces need to be on the same page and working towards that goal.

If you are interested in learning more about food waste in America, check out the UConn Science Salon’s offering on April 6 at the Spotlight Theater in Hartford. The topic is ‘Throwing it All Away: America’s Food Waste Epidemic’. Find out how the excessive amount of food waste from production to consumer affects food security, resource conservation, climate change and more. Find out more at: http://sciencesalon.uconn.edu/upcoming-events/

Those interested in spreading the word about composting might want to consider enrolling in the UConn Master Composter Program held each fall. Information about program location, instructors and registration will be available in July at www.ladybug.uconn.edu.

Compost rules!

Dawn

I was invited to an interesting meeting this week where people’s perceptions
about composting were examined and various barriers to, as well as reasons for
composting, were discussed. Being an enthusiastic composter for years and more
recently, initiating the Master Composter Program at the University of
Connecticut, I am aware that composting is not for everyone. It might be
difficult to convince an apartment dweller, for instance, that composting would
make sense since they typically would not have an outdoor area to apply the
finished compost to.

While most people think of making compost so that they can apply it as an amendment
to their yards and gardens, a more universal reason is to reduce the amount of
solid waste that either goes into landfills or gets incinerated. Solid waste
disposal uses land that could be repurposed, requires payments by individuals and municipalities, and can add to air
pollution when incinerated. Many households can successfully compost about 25%
of their solid waste.

One concern was the cost of compost bins and tools, which can actually vary from
practically no cost to several hundred dollars, depending on the composter’s
desire. This custom built, 3-bin unit was made by two Master Composters at our
Fall Compost and Garden Fair in Norwich on September 24, 2011. The cost was
approximately $260.

3-bin composter built by UConn Master Composters in Norwich

UConn Master Composters also staffed a composting and worm composting exhibit and
held informational sessions on general composting and vermicomposting.  UConn Master Gardeners were at the Fair as well offering free soil pH tests, tours of the rain garden, horticultural advice and presentations, children’s activities, and hosting a perennial plant sale. But I digress! Fancy, expensive compost units are not necessary.

Another potential stumbling block was the perceived need to bring collected kitchen wastes
out to the compost pile on a daily, or at least regular, basis even during the
winter months. Not everyone shovels a path to their compost pile. Some people
freeze their wastes during times when they are not able to get to the compost
pile. Others start worm bins in their cellars. Since our chicken coop is near
the compost bin and we have to water and feed the chickens, I must admit, I had
not given this problem much thought.

The feeling that compost bins will attract unwanted, four-legged varmints was also
listed as a reason why some people would not want to compost. While I have
found occasional evidence of some critter nosing around the compost bin, for
the most part in more suburban and rural areas this is not a huge issue –
unless you count the bear that one of our clients called to complain about!
Generally, if the compost pile just contains plant materials (eggshells are
also acceptable), any new food wastes are placed inside the pile and covered
with leaves or shredded paper, the pile is turned regularly, and somehow
contained, it will not attract very much unwanted wildlife. This may be more
problematic in urban areas and a more secure bin system may be needed. Keeping
items like meats and fats and grease out of the compost pile also makes it less
likely to attract undesirable creatures.

A barrel composter may be a good solution if animal visitors are a problem.

Probably the reason for not composting that surprised me the most was that it takes too
long to make compost! I do realize we live in a society where the desire for
instant gratification is quite pervasive. But, whatever happened to the old adage
that the best things in life are worth waiting for? I am not quite sure what
would be the best way to convince folks that finished compost is such a
marvelous addition to gardens that the few months it takes for the organic
materials to decompose can be compensated by years of improved garden
performance.

This time of year is a marvelous time to start a compost pile if you have ever
thought about doing so. There is no dearth of carbonaceous ‘brown’ material, in
the form of leaves and if there are too many to use in the compost pile they
can be stockpiled in a separate holding unit, fenced in area, or even in leaf
bags. A few handfuls can be used to cover food waste additions throughout the
winter months when you can make it out to the pile. Check out our backyard
composting fact sheet for basic information to get you started. Or, feel free
to give us a call at the UConn Home & Garden Education Center for answers
to your composting questions.

Composting……Because a rind is a terrible thing to waste!  (Anonymous bumper sticker)

Dawn