Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Zen and the Art of Balancing Compost

There is a skill in adding the right mix of “brown stuff” and “green stuff” to your compost. Too much green and your pile will start to smell. Too much brown and your compost will move slower than a herd of turtles stampeding through peanut butter.

Green or Brown?
So, how do you know whether something is “green” or “brown”? Brown ingredients are high in carbon and include materials like leaves, straw, and sawdust. For a harmoniously balanced pile, brown should make up about 2/3 of what you compost.

I’ve listed brown stuff starting with the highest carbon content materials. The number afterward is the approximate carbon to nitrogen ratio, which you can ignore unless you are a numbers geek like me. Just know, bigger numbers = more carbon.

“Brown” or Carbon-Rich Materials (C:N Ratio)
Sawdust (400:1)
Paper (200:1)
Pine Needles (100:1)
Straw (80:1)
Cornstalks (60:1)
Leaves (60:1)

Green, or nitrogen-rich materials, speed up the composting process and add important nutrients. Greens are an important addition to your browns, like the yin to your yang, the cream to your coffee, the Simon to your Garfunkel…you get the idea.

Anything you add to your pile will technically have more carbon than nitrogen (carbon is the basis of all life on Earth in case you missed that day in science class). However, some items, like grass and manure, have relatively high nitrogen content. I’ve listed these nitrogen-rich items starting with those highest in nitrogen content.

“Green” or Nitrogen-Rich Materials (C:N Ratio)
Fruit and Veggie Scraps (15:1)
Grass (20:1)
Coffee Grounds (20:1)
Manure (20:1)
Garden Waste (30:1)
Urea (45:1)

Achieving Balance
At the most basic level, you want 2/3 stuff from the brown list and 1/3 stuff from the green list. If your pile starts to smell, you probably need to pull from the brown list. If you’ve got the “stampeding turtles” pile, grab more from the green list.

If the ratio numbers above made your heart start pounding with excitement, you can learn to use those numbers here. A world of ratios, sums, and other math geeky fun await.

It doesn’t have to be that complicated, though. Everything will break down eventually, you'll just speed up the process and avoid a smelly pile if you pay attention to your browns and greens.

After a while you gain an intuitive “feel” for the right balance. Don’t worry, I’m not going to suggest you “become one” with your compost bin. Just use common sense and eventually you’ll find a Zen-like balance. At least for your compost bin.

Peace out.

Monday, July 12, 2010

How to Stop Critters from Raiding Your Compost Bin

City raccoons are huge. I mean body-builders on steroids, freaky radiation experiment, are-you-sure-that’s-not-a-bear huge. My friends learned this is especially true in Westwood where even a locking lid and 7-inch anchoring screws could not deter these crafty buggers from messing with their compost bin.

Bill and Andrea recently braved the unseasonably cold weather and long lines to buy their first compost bin at our May Sale. Shortly after setting it up in their backyard, they woke to discover the bin on its side with the best-tasting additions to the pile missing.

“Surely this is a fluke. Michelle assured us she never had any problems with animals. Why would our bin be the one to attract local wildlife?”

Bill righted the bin, secured the screws again, and continued composting. A few days later they awoke to again find the bin toppled over. Evidence of muddy paw prints spotted the side of the bin. Compost was strewn about the yard like the raccoons had danced around mocking the failed attempt to protect the compost. No doubt giving each other “high-fives” as they feasted on leftover broccoli and old apple cores.

Rather than placing the bin in the trash and calling me a liar (which I’m sure my less level-headed friends would have done), Andrea came up with an ingeniously simple solution. They placed a few large rocks around the bin. Rocks too heavy for even the most brawny raccoon to move.

Usually burying your food waste and having a locking lid is enough to deter nosey critters. However, if you find yourself in a similar situation to Bill and Andrea, there are a few things you can do to outsmart would be compost criminals.

1. Place chicken wire underneath to prevent burrowing animals from tunneling into the bin.
2. Add coffee grounds to the top of the pile- critters don’t like the smell.
3. Locate your bin away from garbage cans, bird feeders, and fruit trees which attract animals.
4. Turn your pile regularly to compost food waste faster and make a less attractive nesting area.
5. Secure your bin with rocks or place near a wire fence to make pushing it over more difficult.

This story does have a happy ending. Andrea and Bill no longer have problems with raccoons partying around their bin and they are now avid composters. In fact, judging by his enthusiasm, Bill may be on his way to a full out composting obsession.

Welcome to the club, Bill. Welcome to the club.

Photo from Flickr.