Where the Wild Things Are
No, I am not offering up some worms for breakfast... A few friends of mine have been asking about composting, so I thought I'd broach the subject here. Gardeners of the organic persuasion like to nickname compost 'black gold', but I think it should really be called 'miracle elixir'! I have to admit that I am passionate about compost! Making compost is right up there with cooking, knitting, and sewing. It is definitely an activity I consider a hobby!
There is a wealth of resources about composting, so I will gloss over the nuts and bolts. Compost, or garden compost as the British call it, is basically well-rotted organic material. In other words, anything that used to be alive is upcycled into a nutritious compound for plants. I like to think of composting as the natural next step to cooking and eating, and it is also the obvious companion to reducing, reusing and recycling.
The theory is that if you leave a pile of food and garden waste exposed to the elements, wild yeasts, bacteria and bugs will break down the material. Eventually you will have a pile of crumbly brown stuff that looks very much like soil and smells vaguely of mushrooms. In reality, however, if you leave a pile of garbage out in the yard, you will be plagued by pests and your neighbours will hate you.
The least messy way to make compost is to build or to buy an enclosure for the compost pile. These can take many forms, and I suggest you read up on different types of composters here. Building a compost bin from re-purposed material is the cheapest and most sustainable way to go, but for those of us who aren't particularly handy, many cities sell composters at cut-rate prices.
Contrary to general consensus, there is really very little that cannot be composted: if it used to breathe, it can go in the composter. Whether it is plant material (paper, cardboard, used tissues, vegetable trimmings, cotton rags or that tired carrot at the bottom of the crisper drawer) or of animal origin (egg shells, table scraps, old wool sweaters, and cheese rinds), it can -and should- be composted. One key point is to ensure that your bin is two-thirds filled with dry -also known as 'brown'- material, such as fallen autumn leaves, shredded cardboard and newspaper, and compostable pet litter (wood shavings and other such materials).
Some things, like bones and seashells (oysters, mussels and clams) take a really long time to break down, and are best thrown in the bin or sent to commercial composting facilities (cities and towns are increasingly turning to municipal composting to deal with their mounting waste disposal problems.) Meat and fish scraps, shellfish such as shrimp and lobster can get a little smelly, but they do wonders for plants. And as long as they are buried deep into the pile, these should not assault anyone with their odour.
The secret to a low-smell compost pile is to get it nice and hot. And to do so, you need to mix the pile around on a regular basis. There is a plethora of information on hot composting, but personal experience has taught me that the easiest way to turn a pile is to dig holes. Build the initial pile with brown stuff, then each time you want to add a bucketful of waste, instead of just dumping it on top, dig in and bury the new stuff. If you rotate around the pile each time you dig in new material, you end up turning the whole lot by the end of the month. Do this often enough, and you will be rewarded with beautiful compost within three months. Also, used coffee grounds (with the paper filter!) and teabags (paper ones only, do not compost plastic mesh bags even if they claim to be biodegradable) are wonderful fuel for the compost heap.
For those of us living in flats with little or no outdoor space, composting need not be out of reach. You can always save your food scraps for a friend's compost bin, or you can try your hand at worm composting. Just follow this link to learn how make your own worm farm. Vermicomposting is not as dramatic as hot composting: you do not get billows of steam every time you stir the pot, and the process is much slower. Whereas a hot bin can reduce a lobster shell to marvellous plant food in less than two months, the worms will meander about for at least three, if not six, months. However, worm compost is very potent plant food.
In any case, composting rewards you with quantities of lovely planting medium (no need to buy bags of potting soil for that basil you brought back from the supermarket), and helps to reduce your waste output. The added benefits of garden compost are healthy plants (better disease resistance -no need for spraying!) and healthier fruits and vegetables for you!
Happy gardening, bon app' little worms!