Monday, August 22, 2011

Balancing the Compost

Our compost heap has been suffering a bit, oddly from the opposite problem from what has plagued us in the past. It used to be that our compost was always too wet, as we couldn't come by enough brown, carbonaceous material to balance out the amount of green waste and kitchen scraps we produced. These days, with the amount of chicken litter (pine shavings + chicken poop) produced while the chicks were in their brooder box, our compost is heavy on the browns, with too little in the way of greens. This morning I got to work early, before the heat set in, and killed two birds with one stone by cutting back a bunch of herbs that were going wild along the back fence and using them to green up the compost pile.
(Click on Photos to Enlarge)
The compost heap first thing this morning: mostly brown

The chicken poo does a great job of firing up the compost, but in order for compost to really work, and for the contents to cook themselves and break down quickly, the ratio of nitrogen-rich (green) materials to carbon-rich (brown) materials has to be correct. Different sources claim different ratios as the best ones, but the one that seems to work best for us is one part green to about three parts brown. I think it may have to do with the fact that things are fairly humid and wet around here in general, so a little extra dry material in the pile doesn't hurt. For carbonaceous matter, we use the litter from the chickens, dry leaves, shredded newspaper, and dried roses when I dead-head the rose bushes. The brown materials take longer to decompose, so they need to be in small pieces, not big chunks. I've been pulling all kinds of big sticks out of the bottom of our heap- those would take ages to compost. 

The green material should be in smallish pieces too, but as the fresh green things decay faster, it's not as crucial that they be small. The green, nitrogenous materials we use are all scraps from our kitchen (besides meat and bones, although we do put fish in the compost if it's in very small pieces), weeds from the garden and grass clippings. Lately we've been short on the greens, because we're no longer mowing the lawn (we don't water our lawn, and in this hot weather all the grass has gone brown and isn't growing) and because we are giving more of our kitchen scraps to the chickens, because we want them to have a good varied diet and lots of fun bread and radish tops and veggies to eat in addition to their feed.

So, I set out to cut down this bank of oregano and lemon balm:

And this clump of mint, which was beginning to choke out my winter squash anyway:

We adore lemon balm, but it has a tendency to quickly outrun us, and we have about five patches of it around the house, so we always have a good supply. We also have other patches of oregano, so I cut it all to the ground. I have no concerns whatsoever about the mint growing back (it will be back in a week or so, I have no doubt!) so I cut it down completely as well.

The oregano is a bit too woody to put in the compost, but I added all the lush green lemon balm and mint, cutting it up with pruning shears. Every time I had a nice big green pile on top of the compost heap, I mixed it into the heap with the pitchfork, giving the entire heap a good turning while I was at it. We turn our compost every few weeks, to stir it up, aerate it, and give everything a good chance at getting mixed up together. 

While mixing up the pile, I found that the very bottom was composting well, and I did find a good number of worms and other wormy-type creatures that work at breaking down all the goods into nice dark compost for us. If everything is decomposing properly in a compost pile, that also means that there are lots of invisible microbes hard at work in there too.

 I think the pile already looks so much healthier, and it smells all minty-fresh too :)

Compost also needs occasional watering if it is drying out too much, so with any luck these added greens will decrease the need for us to use water to spur on the decomposition. 

When our current compost heap has been built up for a few more weeks, we'll stop adding to it and start a new one in the middle bin. Then we should be able to get a good rotation going, to have one active heap that we are adding to, and one that is available for us to take from, to enrich the soil in the garden. We have enough time left before fall that maybe our current heap will be ready for us to use when we amend the soil before planting fall crops. 

The nearest bin is where we put woody branches and stems. Some we keep to use as stakes for vegetables in the garden, but most end up in the big yard debris wheelie-bin that is included with our curbside garbage service. I was very excited to find out this week that starting in November, the city is switching the garbage pickup from weekly to every other week, and switching the yard debris pickup from every other week to weekly! This will be a great incentive for people to cut down on garbage, and to compost more! The City of Portland has been running pilot projects that include household food waste in the yard debris collection, and that program is going citywide in November as well! This means that all households will be able to put all their food scraps- meat included- in the yard debris bins, and that means a huge decrease in the amount of waste going into landfills from Portland. I know it will take awhile for people to get used to it, but I'm very proud of my town for taking the initiative to force people to re-think the amount of waste they produce, and to give everyone the option to compost, whether or not they have space to do it at home like we do.

No comments: