Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Fun Winter Project: Straw Bale Composting Fort

Did you ever tear up all the couch cushions, pillows, and blankets to make a living room fort as a kid? Since this was one of my favorite activities, I was especially drawn to the idea of making winter straw fort compost bins after watching a video of gardeners doing this in Brooklyn.

I mean, if they can make winter compost and grow cold frame lettuce in Brooklyn, we can do it in Cincinnati, right?

The idea is that stacked up straw bales on three sides insulates the compost from weather. On the fourth side they constructed a simple cold frame which likely draws and provides heat to the compost bin depending on the time of day. Annie Hauck-Lawson, the professor and Master Composter who put together the video, created an active compost pile in a New York January and February. And because the bin was insulated, she was free to turn and aerate the pile in the dead of winter!

Check out this two part video for a fun winter composting project.

Part Two:

Although, something tells me this “fort” won’t be as fun as the one made of couch cushions.

See other videos by Annie on her website:

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Leaf Mold Compost- How to Turn Your Annual Nuisance into an Asset

My backyard is surrounded by majestic 100+ year old Oak trees. Which is all wonderful and nice until they dump bushels of crunchy brown leaves burying my garden every fall.

But a resourceful gardener will see those leaves as dollars gently swaying onto their lawn (probably more like pennies but the analogy is not as effective). Leaves can easily be turned into beautiful dark brown leaf mold compost that improves soil structure, increases water retention, and encourages life in the soil. All you need is a little space and patience.

We call it leaf mold because the leaves are breaking down without adding food scraps and other materials like in a compost bin. Of course you can still add leaves to your regular compost bin but most of us have more leaves than would ever fit in our backyard composter.

Leaf mold is very easy to make, basically just pile the leaves and let them decompose. However, for those of us without a great abundance of space and patience here are some good tips:

1. Make a “cage” 3ft x 3ft with stakes and chicken wire (both square and round will work)

2. Shred leaves with a lawn mower or weedwacker

3. Put leaves in cage
4. Keep leaves moist

Dead leaves are almost completely carbon so it could take a while for them to decompose. Shredding the leaves and keeping them moist will speed up your waiting time from two or more years down to less than a year.

If you’re like me, you’re staring at the giant mountain of leaves in your backyard thinking that you could probably supply the entire neighborhood with leaf mold once your finished. Don’t worry, once you shred the leaves they compact significantly. But if you still have too many leaves to compost yourself, there are some communities who will collect your leaves and compost them.

Here is a list of all Hamilton County communities and their yardwaste collection policies:

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Bokashi- Fermenting Your Food Waste for Composting

Bokashi. A method of trimming miniature trees or a tasty Japanese dish? Neither, it's actually a form of composting using fermentation and microorganisms! Since I know next to nothing about Bokashi composting, Roy Mastromauro, a local compost enthusiast, agreed to write a guest post for the blog. So sit back, grab a pickle to snack on, and enjoy this post as we all learn together about this very unique composting method.

As a new composter, I had a few issues. First and foremost, I have a famously weak stomach, and I wasn't exactly, ehh, conscientious about my practices, and created some bad luck for myself. Second, I had a hard time remembering what things I could compost, and teaching my family and guests the same. Third, as a lazy composter, it was hard to convince myself it was worth it, in terms of time and effort, as it seemed to take forever to get the good stuff out of it.

I’m glad to say that I overcame all these trials and tribulations, and am a happy composter. I learned how to do it so it wouldn’t smell, as I gradually came to understand what was “good” to put in the pile and what wasn’t, and we (as a household) adopted a routine. It wasn’t until recently, though, that I discovered a way to improve on all these issues, dramatically.

The answer, for me, friends, was the Bokashi method of composting. Now, it takes less time, and everything can go into the pile, even the no-no's of the traditional home arrangement. Plus, it takes far less time for the material to break down when it's "ready" to compost.

The method is very simple. Everything from the kitchen is collected, and we introduce organisms, to keep the smell down and the flies out, on a daily basis. These organisms act to speed the eventual compost process, by making the material better “food” for the stuff that turns it into compost. It also means there's no daily run to the compost bin; it takes us a couple of weeks to fill the indoor bucket!

Best of all, no matter how lazy I've been, the material starts to break down immediately after coming in contact with soil. I don’t have to worry about turning or watering when it goes to the outdoor compost bin. The organisms work anaerobically, and the material doesn't need water because it hasn't dried out.

Bokashi changes the game because it introduces organisms to start materials on their way to composting before the material ever reaches the pile. Instead of running out to the bin with your daily compost, you just put it in an indoor bin and inoculate it with material to suspend decomposition. Once the Bokashi bin is full, empty it into your regular outdoor compost bin.

When you do, it’ll look pickled. It will be pickled. It will then break down faster, with fewer problems, in your bin. If you live in an apartment without a bin, you can simply top of the Bokashi-ed compost with soil and plant into it! Even if you think you have a black thumb, you could collect the material this way, for weeks, and not see a fly or smell a thing, and trade it with your local gardener for some produce.

This method works. It makes decisions easy, makes managing the stuff easy, and makes it work faster and with fewer mistakes.

There is a lot of information available about this method, including at and

I’m more than happy to provide instruction about the process to groups or individuals, for free and with free materials to get you started. You can contact me directly at

Roy is a contributor to and teaches residents about Bokashi composting. Please feel free to leave questions in the comments!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Fall Harvest

Alas, all of my fall vegetables succumbed to the Great Drought of 2010 (except for a few pepper plants surviving on the runoff from my neighbor’s watering). But even though all my plants are crispy fried, I was still able to harvest my favorite crop of all- compost!

There are many ways you can harvest compost and you certainly do not need to harvest in the fall. In fact, spring may be ideal since you’re working the soil and planting seeds. But if you’re a single bin family like ours, harvesting in the fall clears room for the inevitable glut of leaves and the winter food scraps.

Bottoms Up
If your bin has a door in the bottom, this is a great way to harvest compost in small amounts throughout the year. Just open the door and shovel out what you need, tossing bits back in that may not be finished. Once you start hitting really unfinished material you’ve harvested all you can.

The Big Shebang
I like to harvest all of my compost at once. Besides receiving a ridiculous amount of satisfaction from shoveling it all in a wheelbarrow and standing back to admire my bounty (yes, I’m easily amused), I can also spread the beautiful compost around the garden in bulk.

If you have a single bin set up and want to harvest the compost all at once, you’re going to have to pull out the elbow grease. Either remove the bin off the compost or reach in from the top to shovel out everything that is unfinished into a pile (preferably in buckets or a wheelbarrow). Once you hit the brown, crumbly good stuff, shovel that into a new pile. After you’ve harvested everything you can, dump the unfinished material back in the bin.

Warning- Only use this method if you like (or don’t mind) seeing all the creepy crawlies working in the pile.

Two Bins are Better than One
If you have two compost bins, or one of those fancy schmancy three bin systems, you won’t need to pull off the unfinished material to get to the good stuff. With two bins just add to one while the other one “cooks” then harvest when complete and switch.

Three bin systems are a whole other ball game and you will see a separate post on them in the future.

To Screen or Not to Screen
I don’t screen. It may be that I’m just too lazy or that I don’t mind finding the occasional peach pit or pieces of egg shell in my compost. As I’m harvesting my compost, I pull off the stuff that’s too big and put it back in to the bin.

However, if you would like evenly-sized, so-scrumptious-you-could-almost-eat-it compost, you will want to use a screen. A compost screen is basically ½ inch wire mesh fastened onto a square through which you can sift the compost. Here is a article explaining how to make one:

Look for a future post about what you can do with your beautiful finished compost.

Happy Harvesting!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Egg-cellent Compost

I know I said you can’t compost meat in your backyard bin. And you still shouldn’t, so don’t. But there is one meatish item that is awesome for the compost bin and won’t end up a stinky mess. The incredible, inedible egg shell.

Egg shells are high in calcium, something plants need for cell growth. And we tend to have a lot of them (at least we do in my chocolate chip cookie loving household) so why not turn them into something useful? Egg-actly.

Egg shells will take a while to break down but you can speed up the process by crushing them before you toss them in the bin. You can even get out a nice hammer if you really want to break it up fast. Or if you just have pent up aggression and really need to smash something. I don’t think the egg shells will mind.

Some people rinse the shells or bake them to make sure they are free from salmonella. All the avid composters I know just crush them up and toss them in (of course, we may be the same carefree folks eating raw cookie dough when no one is looking). Since I doubt I’ll be licking my fingers next time I reach into my compost bin, I’m not too worried. But use your own discretion.

Another consideration: while egg shells may be great for your plants, don’t put all your eggs in one basket, so to speak. Consider testing your soil fertility to see what your soil needs. Call the Hamilton County Soil and Water Conservation District for more information on soil testing (772-7645).

Supposedly you can compost other shells as well, but since shellfish tend to creep me out I never have. Has anyone tried composting other kinds of shells?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Become a Composting Tourist

Some of us love our compost bin and would never think of straying from the well-established working relationship. But if ads for tumblers have caught your eye or if you wonder what a three bin system is all about, there is a way to “play the field” without the pressure to buy anything.

Hamilton County has several Compost Demonstration Sites around the area where you can see a variety of compost bins in action.

The Civic Garden Center of Greater Cincinnati is open to the public for self-guided tours. This site boasts just about any bin your heart desires: plastic tumbler, wire, wooden three bin system, and even a miniature three bin system for the kids. If traditional isn’t your type, they have an orb bin you are supposed to roll around on the ground to aerate and mix. And when you’ve had your fill of compost bin excitement, you can take a stroll through the beautiful gardens to see where the compost is used.

All the sites offer unique compost bins to check out, so consider “touring” a few just for fun. Here is the list:

Civic Garden Center or call 221-0981

Gardens @ Village Green or call 541-0252

Glenwood Gardens or call 521-7275

Grannies Garden School or call 324-2873

Gorman Heritage Farm or call 563-6663

The District also offers presentations to garden clubs and other interested groups at the sites. Contact the District’s Education Specialist, Keebler Holley at 946-7736.

Photo of Gorman Heritage Farm Demonstration Site

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Five Habits of a Successful Composter

Here are a few tried and true habits that anyone can adopt to create beautiful compost faster.

1. Bury your food waste

Avoid creating smells which repel your friends while attracting curious 4-legged critters. Placing food waste under a layer of leaves or plant clippings will keep your pile smelling composty fresh.

2. Add carbon (brown stuff)

You may only think about composting your banana peels and apple cores, but a successful compost pile has a 3 to 1 balance of brown to green. Keep a pile of leaves next to your bin to add as needed. If you’re short on leaves consider shredded paper, sawdust, or torn up cardboard.

3. Turn frequently

If you want your compostables to decompose before the next glacier, you need to work air into the pile. Like blowing on a campfire, the air will heat up your pile and make it compost in double-time. Without turning you will have to wait at least a year for finished compost.

4. Chop it up

Don’t add anything too big to the pile. The smaller you can cut, break, clip, or tear what you add to the pile, the faster it will break down.

5. Water, when needed

Your pile should be about as damp as a wrung out sponge. Most of the year, food waste and the occasional rain will suffice. But in hot and dry weather, the pile gets too dry to maintain all the wonderful microorganisms working to break up your compost. Watering will keep your pile alive.

Unlike flossing your teeth or picking up your dirty socks, these good habits will lead to a faster, more well-balanced compost pile. Adopt them and you will be composting like a pro in no time.

But we still recommend you keep flossing.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Free Composting Class Offered in Woodlawn

Back to school the way I like it: free, quick, and with complementary cookies.

If you want to learn more about composting but can’t commit to becoming a master composter, consider this opportunity.

The District is offering a Greening Your Home Speaker Series this fall. You can learn tips on saving energy and reducing your waste at home. All without lugging around a giant backpack or dodging spit balls.

The series kicks off on October 5th with a composting class lead by the very entertaining Master Composter John Duke. He’ll be covering all the basics and will be available to answer questions.

But where will this delightful and informative learning opportunity take place? The Woodlawn Community Center at 10050 Woodlawn Blvd, Woodlawn 45215. The class will begin promptly at 6:30 pm and only last an hour (that’s 6:30 pm to 7:30 pm).

Register before September 30th by calling or emailing Susan Schumacher at 946-7734 or

For more details on the other classes in the series visit

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Leading Your Dry Compost Bin to the Watering Hole

What in tarnation is going on out there? Tumble weeds are blowing by and your compost bin feels drier and dustier than a John Wayne movie. You probably need to wet your compost’s whistle (i.e. add some water).

Water is an essential ingredient to keeping your compost pile healthy. The compost bin is the one place you’re actually trying to support bacterial life and those helpful composters are most happy when your pile is about as wet as a wrung out sponge.

But hold your horses, compost cowboy!

Don’t pull out the hose just yet. Water straight from the tap is full of chlorine. Chlorine added to kill bacteria in order to make the water safe to drink. So what do you think will happen when you spray chlorinated water right on your pile? Yup. You ain’t plumb weak north of the ears. Chlorine = dead bacteria.

Well, dang, what are us city slickers supposed to do?

John Duke, Master Composter extraordinaire, gave me some advice better than “don’t squat with your spurs on” (well, at least more applicable). John recommends pouring the water first in a bucket to let the chlorine evaporate. Luckily chlorine evaporates fairly quickly.

Here’s what I do when my pile gets thirsty. After emptying my kitchen collector into the bin, I fill it up with water and let it rest. After about 20 minutes or a few hours depending on how long my garden distracts me, most of the chlorine has evaporated and I can pour it on my pile. An added bonus: my kitchen collector gets a little cleaner too!

You could also use water from a rain barrel since it has not been chlorinated. Or when you see the clouds rolling in just remove the lid from the bin to collect some rain. But don’t let the pile get too soggy, a wrung out sponge is the best level of moisture.

Happy trails, ya’ll.

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.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Do’s and Don’ts of Composting Pet Poo

“Dogs have owners; cats have staff.” – unknown

As I kneel down before my smelly cat box, I believe no truer words were spoken. Oh, the joys of rooming with feline companions. Of course, whether you’re scooping through cat litter or following your dog around with a baggy, you know you would do just about anything for the unconditional love of a pet.

Even clean up their poo. In a seemingly never-ending supply.

So first the bad news: you cannot and should not compost pet waste in your backyard compost bin from your cat, dog, or any other carnivorous or omnivorous animal. Besides being stinky it can also contain harmful pathogens. Yuck and double-yuck, don’t do it.

Now the good news: if you have an herbivorous pet, like a gerbil or rabbit, compost away. Chillman, my resident rodent, regularly contributes to the compost bin. My pint-sized, hopping, squeaking, housemate prefers shredded pine bedding to “do his business,” so to speak. And since he’s an herbivore, I can safely mix his used litter (which smells pine fresh unlike the cat box) into my compost.

Pet waste from our lovable herbivores is high in nitrogen and aerobic bacteria. In fact, urine contains urea which is one of the best and most plentiful sources of nitrogen around. It breaks down fast in the compost bin and really helps the pile heat up. Plus, the high carbon bedding that most of these pets use balances out the nitrogen perfectly.

Hamster Poo
Gerbil Poo
Rabbit Poo
Guinea Pig Poo
Chinchilla Poo
Mouse Poo
Horse Poo
Alpaca Poo

Cat Poo
Dog Poo
Ferret Poo
Snake Poo
Lizard Poo
Bird Poo
Kinkajou Poo

As far as I can tell, bird droppings are fairly dicey and contain many seeds so it’s best to avoid those in your bin. Although, I hear quite a few people compost their chicken poo.

Next time you’re cleaning up after your herbivorous pet, think of them as little compost additive makers, just doing their part to help with your compost bin. Yet another reason to love our furry friends.

And yes, I did win the bet of how many times I could say “poo” in a post.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Composting Coffee to Make Your Garden Grow

I have to admit, I’m not a regular coffee drinker. It’s tea for me, but I love, love, love the smell of freshly brewed coffee. Every once in a while, I’ll cheat on my tea habit and splurge on some frou, frou chocolaty mocha deliciousness with lots of whipped cream. Of course, my coworkers then make fun of me as I uncontrollably bounce around the office and speak in caffeinated double time.

But there is another reason to love coffee besides its delightful aroma and jolting caffeine high. Spent grounds from your cup of joe make a fantastic addition to your compost bin and provide plants with important nutrients. The used-up grounds contain loads of nitrogen which speeds up the composting process, giving you finished compost sooner (cup of steaming hot nitrogen booster, anyone?). And, while we may love the smell of coffee, many animals do not, so mixing the grounds with food waste will actually deter raccoons and other nosey critters from messing with your compost bin.

Compost Buzz
Gardeners in the know covet finished compost for its ability to improve soil structure, retain moisture, and create healthy productive gardens. Spent coffee grounds “sweeten the pot” even more by adding phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, and copper, all minerals your plants need. And, after the grounds decompose, they release oodles of the nitrogen your plants love.

If you’re a regular java drinker, you probably have enough spent grounds to satisfy a backyard compost pile. Simply throw the grounds, filter and all, into the bin. Us non-coffee drinkers have to go about getting our coffee ground fix creatively. You can pilfer the coffee maker at work, sweet talk your neighbor, or even ask a local coffee shop. Most cafes will gladly set aside some spent grounds for you, and some even package the used-up grounds for people to take for free.

House Blend
Of course, don’t get in over your head. If you add enough grounds to keep your compost bin awake for a week, make sure to add plenty of carbon based material, like dead leaves, to balance out the nitrogen. Otherwise, you risk the pleasant coffee aroma being replaced by a far less pleasant rotting odor. Not the sort of smell you want to wake up to, trust me.

Other than remembering to add leaves, the process of composting coffee grounds is super simple with definite rewards for your garden. Now, if you’ll excuse me, a tall iced mocha is calling my name.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Learn to Compost Like a Master

Wax on. Wax off.

Do you want to earn a black belt in composting? Then reserve your space now in the Master Composter Training happening this fall. The District and the Civic Garden Center join forces twice a year to put on this intensive “action-packed” training.

You probably won’t learn to karate chop boards or high kick on command, but you will learn almost everything you need to know about composting. Topics include: which type of compost bin is best for you and how to build it, how and when to turn your compost, how to incorporate compost into your existing garden, and the fascinating biology of a compost pile.

Students will each build and take home a wire compost bin (perfect for combating all those extra fall leaves), and have the option to make a vermi-composting system for a nominal fee. This three-week course, offered each spring and fall, is completely FREE! All we ask, young grasshopper, is that you take what you learn and pass it on. You’ll need to complete fifteen hours of volunteer service to be considered a true Master Composter. Hii-Yah!

Fall, 2010 Class Dates
September 13th, September 27th, and October 11th
Monday's from 6 pm - 8:30 pm.
Attendance at all three sessions is mandatory.

Classes held at the Civic Garden Center, 2715 Reading Road, Cincinnati, Ohio 45206. Class size is limited so reserve your space now by calling 221-0981, ext. 18.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

How to Start the Perfect Compost Bin

“Nature does nothing uselessly” -Aristotle

Composting is a lot like gardening in that we are taming a natural process (decomposition) to use to our advantage. If you take the time to set up a proper bin from the beginning, you’ll make “the taming” easy as pie. A dark crumbly mud pie, of course.

First, find a perfect spot in your yard for the bin. This should be a somewhat shady corner of your yard (and I’m talking less-sunlight shady, not lawless- black market shady, because that is not a good place to compost). Set an open-bottom bin on the bare ground to welcome in all the good bugs, fungus, and bacteria.

Next, add one to two feet of leaves. If you’d like to speed up the decomposition you can shred the leaves into smaller pieces, a task I usually give to my husband because the man loves his weed eater almost as much as he loves me. The shredded leaves are a good base to the pile.

If you are one of those impeccable-backyard people without a single leaf remaining (la-tee-dah), consider using shredded paper or dead plant material broken into small pieces. Or you could offer to rake your neighbor’s yard in exchange for some leaves.

On top of the leaves add a shovel of good garden soil. Not the bagged, sanitized stuff but the right-from-the-ground, full-of-life soil. This will add micro and macro organisms to help kick start your pile.

Now you have a basic compost bin. You can start adding any plant based material including vegetable and fruit scraps, coffee grounds, tea bags, and weeds without seeds. To have an odor-free pile bury food waste each and every time it’s added.

Repeat after me: always bury food waste, always bury food waste…

Think about what you want out of your bin. If you need compost in three months, turn your pile once a week. Turning adds air which heats up your pile and speeds up decomposition. If you have patience and don’t mind waiting longer for finished compost, just turn the pile a few times a year.

Once you start the bin, nature will take over for the hard part. Just keep adding material and you will soon be harvesting a “delicious” soil amendment any garden will appreciate.

For more composting info peruse the blog or visit our website.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Compost Bin Sale is a Sensation!

Unbelievable! Hamilton County residents rock!

We sold a record-breaking 1,862 compost bins on Saturday, May 8th. All those households composting means a potential 559 tons of food and yard waste will be composted right in people’s backyards every year!

A special thanks to Cincinnati State and Princeton High School for allowing us to use your parking lots. Also to the wonderful volunteers who carried hundreds of bins and spoke to thousands of residents, we could not have done it without you.

Our grassroots/ guerilla marketing worked! I would also like to thank the organizations who helped us promote the sale by hosting our displays, distributing our flyers, or spreading the word.

Civic Garden Center of Greater Cincinnati
Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden
Renck’s Landscape and Garden Center
Whole Foods
The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County
Building Value
WCPO, Channel 9
WVXU, 91.7
The Enquirer
The Community Press

And dozens more who passed out flyers. I’m amazed how the response keeps growing year after year. Yay for composting!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Don’t Miss this Fantastic, Bombastic, Once-in-a-Lifetime-Year Opportunity

Do you enjoy saving money and love composting? Then holy moly have I got a deal for you!

Next Saturday, May 8th we are hosting our annual Compost Bin Sale at Cincinnati State and Princeton High School from 9-2. I’m especially excited because if we’re successful, hundreds of residents will purchase a bin and become brand new composters! Each compost bin leaving the event means a potential 600 pounds of food and yard waste diverted from the landfill every year! I get all warm and fuzzy inside just thinking of all the environmental benefits.

Super Duper Discounted Deal
We’ll be selling the Earth Machine Compost Bin for not $100, not even $50, but an unbelievable $35! We’ll also have nifty accessories like compost turners and kitchen collection pails. The bins are available on a first come, first served basis so ACT NOW! (well not really "now" more like the morning of Saturday, May 8th).

And We’ll Throw in Expert Advice for Free!
This year we are not only selling deeply discounted compost bins and cool accessories. We will have a special compost demonstration area with Master Composters answering questions, several types of bins on display, and regular presentations. Wow, what a deal!

But Wait, There’s More!
We will also be giving away free “I heart compost” car bumper magnets to the first 500 people who stop by! No purchase necessary! You just have to be crazy enough about composting to show us some love and stop by the event.

Before I come down from my iced caffeinated beverage high (which apparently makes me think I'm writing an infomercial), I want to encourage you to share your love for composting by spreading the word about the sale. Tell your mother, brother, second cousin, and best friends from grade school. You can invite people through Facebook or just send them the link below. This deal only comes once a year, so don’t miss out!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Composting Benefits Everyone Ought to Know

In honor of Earth Day, I’ve decided to give all you lovely composters a pat on the back and explain how backyard composting benefits our planet. So here are the top three environmental reasons to compost (a.k.a. how to green-guilt your friends and family into starting a compost bin of their own).

1. DIY Soil Enhancer
Finished compost adds important nutrients to your soil and since it’s homemade, you’re not driving to the store to purchase a prepackaged bag of fertilizer that was shipped from who knows where. Compost additionally improves our heavy clay soils by adding a much sought after humus layer in which plants thrive.

But get this- compost also binds heavy metals, polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and other nasties to prevent them from migrating into the water or being absorbed by plants (

I definitely prefer my broccoli without a side of PAH.

2. Saving the Climate Naturally
Bear with me, I’m about to get all sciency. When plants decompose, they naturally release the carbon dioxide (CO2) absorbed during their life. Plants - and their food counterparts - also do this in your compost bin. It’s okay, that’s what they’re supposed to do.

But when buried in the landfill with no air, food and yard waste decompose anaerobically and release… (scary organ music: da...da...daaa) …methane instead. The problem is that methane traps heat almost 21 times more effectively than CO2.

In other words, composting in your backyard reduces greenhouse gas impact and global climate change. Yay for you!

3. Reduce Waste
Food and yard waste make up almost half of what residents send to the landfill. Composting means you put less waste at the curb leading to lighter garbage and yard waste trucks, longer life at the landfill, and smiles all around.

Composting has quite a few other benefits I have not mentioned, such as reducing water usage, preventing erosion, and decreasing fertilizers in storm water. If you can think of any others, please post a comment.

Backyard composting is not just fun (hey, I’m easily amused), it kicks some serious patooty in the environmental benefit arena. We composters really celebrate earth day, every day.

Happy Earth Day!!!!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Three Foods Forbidden in Backyard Composting

Sometimes it’s fun to break the rules, live on the edge, go against the grain. Some rules were meant to be broken, but not these. So hang up your leather jacket and pack away the electric guitar at least long enough to read this post. I am telling you in my best patronizing tone (with my finger wagging) “Kids, you need to keep these foods out of your bin. It’s for your own good.”

Don’t Say Cheese
We have very little meat in my house but we make up for it in cheese. Swiss, muenster, cheddar, goat (mmmm…goat cheese), at any given time my fridge holds at least 6 or 7 varieties. But I will not compost them and not just because I could not bear my precious cheeses falling to such a fate.

Composting cheese will make your pile smelly and attract raccoons, rats, and other hungry critters to your bin. This goes for milk, butter, and any other dairy items as well. Dairy + Compost = Gross.

Your Compost Pile is Vegetarian
And you never want to force meat on a vegetarian. It isn’t pretty. Take it from my mom who had to deal with one annoying, teenage, budding-vegetarian daughter (who shall remain anonymous) in a family of carnivores.

Meat does eventually compost but your backyard pile is not hot enough to safely decompose the meat fast enough. Flies (and their resulting maggoty offspring) will set up camp in your bin if you try to compost meat. Consider yourself warned.

Oil will Spoil
Oil will coat anything it touches in your pile, smothering the microbes and slowing down decomposition. Oil also fills up pore spaces in the compost, squeezing out air and water which could cause the pile to stink.

So if you have any leftover oil-laden foods like french fries (yeah, right) or dressing coated salad, it’s better to just throw them in the trash.

I know it’s hard to fight the urge to throw every bit of leftover food in the bin. But keeping these forbidden foods out of your compost bin will result in a much better smelling, healthier compost. Resist the rebellious streak and follow this rule. Your compost bin will thank you.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Creating a Stink

“No! No! No!” I screamed silently in my head, scrunching my nose and staring down in disbelief at my compost bin…

Let me back up to the beginning. A few Fridays ago I had the afternoon off and took the opportunity to enjoy the weather and wander around my garden as it yawned out of hibernation. After making a few rounds gathering bundles of dead plants and old potting soil, I brought the offerings to my compost bin.

All winter I’ve been adding food waste to the bin, almost to the point where I didn’t know how much more he could take before spring (yes, my compost bin is male, don’t ask). I decided the weather was warm enough for the inaugural 2010 compost bin turning. A sort of opening day in my strange, little composting world.

I fetched my wingdigger compost turner out of the storage area and after shaking off the winter dust and cobwebs, I stabbed it unceremoniously into the middle of the pile. That’s when I felt it. The rather unpleasant wet squish warning me of what to expect next.

Screaming in my head and anticipating the worst, I slowly pulled the turner out of the pile and as I did a slight ammonia smell wafted in the air. I let out a sigh. Crisis averted. My pile was too wet but only starting to go anaerobic- you know, hospitable to the bad smelling, oxygen-hating, slow-composting cousins of the aerobic bacteria we want to encourage. A healthy compost bin has a sweet earthy smell.

In my determination to fit all my winter food scraps into my bin, I didn’t add enough brown ingredients like leaves. So as soon as the pile thawed, all the water from the food scraps and the overfilled bin with few airspaces meant the bad bacteria started to take over. I say “started” because if they had really taken over I would have smelled a sharp, nose-hair-curling, rotten egg stench.

So I saved the bin just in time (is there such a thing as a composting super hero?) and made sure to prod everywhere to really get the air into the pile. I also shredded up leaves and pushed those into the pile to fluff up the dense food waste. But don’t feel like you need some fancy dancy official tool to turn your compost. Prodding the bin with a pitchfork or shovel works or even just using a big stick to poke holes if nothing else. You can also slide your bin up off your pile, set it in a new spot, and shovel the compost back in to introduce air.

A week and a half after turning my pile, it already fell 4-6 inches which tells me it's rockin’ and rollin’. I plan to turn it again this Friday just because I derive a ridiculous amount of pleasure in seeing my bin heat up and start really working. You can turn your bin once a week or once a year, it’s really up to you, but the more you turn, the faster you will have finished compost. But beware. If you’re not a frequent turner and you add food scraps to the pile, keep one eye opened (or one nostril opened?) for an ammonia or rotten egg smell meaning your pile needs a little TLC.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Composting Tips for Frat Boys

It seems every time I host a party at my house, I wake up the next morning to a dozen half-finished beer bottles sprawled on coffee or end tables, tucked next to my couch, or dotting my backyard. Mostly just forgotten drinks or gross fruity beer castoffs that some adventurous soul paid too much for before realizing raspberries and beer don’t mix.

But I digress. This post isn’t about the slovenly housekeeping habits of my friends or misadventures in experimental beer tasting. It is, of course, about composting.

After I sigh and think what a waste it all is and how I am ever grateful for the BYOB policy, I am actually excited about the stale beer.

Yes, I am excited about the stale beer.

That’s because I will dump those half-drank ales and lagers right onto my compost pile. Beer not only composts but actually is a composting accelerator. Beer is a good source of nitrogen for your compost pile and the yeast in the beer feeds the beneficial bacteria in the pile. So stale brewskies are a great way to kick start your pile into action. Now you see why I get excited.

If you happen to be an amateur home-brewer, the spent grains from the home brewing process also compost well. Both the grains and the beer will add moisture to your bin just like adding water, so be sure to balance them with dry material like leaves, shredded paper, or those pizza boxes from the party torn into small pieces (sans pizza, of course). Oh, and I’ve learned from experience that you don’t want to add so much beer that your compost bin smells like a drunken pirate. Unless, obviously you like drunken pirates…and honestly, who doesn’t?

So I’ve found a great way to make use of the stale leftover beer (and that gross light beer someone left in my fridge- because I surely won’t be drinking it). Now if only the rest of the cleanup was this much fun.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

You Keep Worms Where?

Worm bin composting, or vermicomposting for us who like to feel smart using big words, is a compact alternative to backyard composting. Worm bins are small enough to fit under your sink, the bins don’t smell, and the worms will not escape. People pay big bucks for vermicompost (aka, worm poop) to use as a natural fertilizer but your worm bin will supply you with vermicompost for free in exchange for vegetable and fruit scraps. Worm bin composting is great for:
• Apartment or Condo Dwellers
• Offices
• People who prefer not to step outside in the winter
• People fond of exotic pets

Setting up a worm bin is easy. For a household of four to six people you need a bin about 1 ft x 2ft x 2ft. Plastic bins used for storage work great. Drill holes in the bottom and sides for ventilation and place a tray under the bin to catch any water that seeps through.

Next, gather four to six pounds of shredded paper and dead leaves to use as bedding. Soak the bedding in water to the consistency of a wrung out sponge. Remember a worm’s body is 75% water and they need a moist environment to survive (but they’re not big swimmers so don’t try to make an aquarium). Mix one cup of soil from outside with the bedding.

Finally, add the worms to their new home. You will only need a half pound of red worms to start. They multiply faster than rascally rabbits and soon you will have a pound of worms for every square foot. You can purchase locally produced red worms for $20 per pound through Alex McDuffie (

Red worms used in vermicomposting have a voracious appetite and will eat half their weight in food scraps a day. When adding scraps start slow and increase as your worms multiply. Bury the food in the bedding to avoid gnats and fruit flies and place a cover on the bin to hold in moisture and block out light.

You can keep your bin any place that is convenient to add scraps- a closet, under the sink, in the garage, just don’t let them freeze or get above 90 degrees. We keep several vermicomposting bins in the backroom of our office and have received very few complaints (with the exception of our coworker Susan who just pretends the worms aren’t there).

In three to four months, your vermicompost will be ready to use. If you don’t want to pour out the compost and pick out the worms (oh kids, I have a new game to play…) consider adding fresh bedding and food to one side of the bin and waiting for all the worms to move over to their new digs. Then scoop out all the vermicompost and make sure you don’t pull out any stragglers (try not to release any of the red worms into the wild since they are not native). Vermicompost can be used as a soil amendment for houseplants or a top dressing on outdoor flower and vegetable beds.

For more tips on building a worm bin read the vermicomposting sections of our yardwaste at home handbook:

Friday, February 12, 2010

Winter Composting Tips

Okay, Winter, thanks for the visit, it’s been great catching up and I enjoyed the sled ridding and snowball fights but, um, don’t you think it’s time to move on and make space for spring? Please. Pretty, pretty, please.

If only it were that easy. Unfortunately, winter is not over yet (at least according to that annoying little groundhog) but the good news is that your compost bin need not be abandoned just because it is below freezing. Most decomposing action in your bin will slow down or stop but you can continue to build your pile with food waste throughout the winter. Following a few simple tips will make your bin ready to jump into the action at the first sign of spring.

First and foremost, prepare your bin in the fall for the impending months of cold. Harvest your compost to make space in the bin for the winter pile up. After you have removed all that wonderful compost, insulate the bin with a good layer of shredded leaves, dead plants, or straw. (But if you can’t find leaves in the fall I’m pretty sure you don’t live in Cincinnati).

Next, put anything not quite finished composting in the middle of the pile and add another layer of insulating leaves. This will keep the center active longer. Keep adding food waste over the winter, layering with leaves or other browns so when the weather does heat up, the pile is ready to go.

My second winter composting tip-be lazy. Don’t turn the pile when it’s really cold outside. Turning lets all that valuable heat out that the fungus and bacteria need to survive. Also, watering your pile in the winter is unnecessary since it is mostly inactive. Finally, make sure your pile is close to the house because, let’s face it, you will only walk so far in the gray nasty weather (unless you are one of those wild people jogging outside in February, and in that case you have my upmost wonderment and respect).

I know, how can I follow lazy with diligent, but just be glad I included lazy at all. Consider cutting up materials more in the winter so they break down faster and take up less space in the bin. The natural freeze and thaw action will break the materials up somewhat but the smaller pieces you add, the better. And unless you want to feed the neighborhood critters, keep the lid locked and make sure to cover your food waste with leaves, shredded paper, or even a layer of old cardboard. If you’re really enthusiastic about winter composting, you can also insulate the outside of the bin with straw bales to keep it warmer longer.

Composting in the winter really is easy and rewarding. At a time when pouring over seed catalogues is the closest I get to gardening, winter composting keeps me connected and reminds me about what’s around the corner. I know it may seem like we’re in the never-ending grip of Old Man Winter but before you know it tulips will be popping up, birds will be singing, and- if you keep adding to your pile- your compost bin will be roaring into action.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

We’re not in Kansas Clermont anymore…

My husband Adam is a dutiful environmentalist. He turns down our thermostat, rides his bike, avidly recycles (of course), and even collects lunch scraps from coworkers to bring home for composting. Despite the fact that we have lived in the city for more than a decade, he is a farm boy at heart and no matter how often I remind/nag him, he always commits one major composting faux pas: he never buries the food waste in the bin.

Growing up with horses, Adam’s family always had a hefty compost pile. The daily chore of bringing kitchen scraps to the pile involved a quarter mile hike behind the horse barn and tossing the scraps on a heap taller than him. There was no point to burying the food waste, I mean who’s going to notice a few rotting vegetables amongst several tons of horse manure, especially when the closest neighbor lives miles down the road?

But when your grill and patio table are only feet away, you want the best smelling compost bin possible. Several times I have noticed flies congregating around the bin or a “garbagy” smell coming from the compost. When I open the lid to investigate, sure enough old broccoli and black banana peels will be staring back at me. But almost as soon as I cover the pile with leaves or shredded paper, the problem goes away.

Taking the time to bury food waste will go a long way in preventing odors, unwanted flying insects, and the occasional curious 4-legged bandit tempted by the smell of an easy meal. Burying food waste can be quite easy. Next to our bin is a three-pronged garden fork (properly called a hand cultivator) which I use to lift up the layer of leaves on top while I tuck the food waste underneath. I also keep a pile of leaves next to the bin and occasionally throw those on top if the layer is thin.

Of course, you won’t hear this girl complaining about a little spousal composting imperfection, I wouldn’t trade him for anyone (not even Brad Pitt- who probably composts perfectly). I’m counting my blessings that he’s willing to take out the kitchen scraps at all.

Now about washing the dishes…

Friday, January 29, 2010

Why You Don’t Want “Froggy” Compost

Wet, cold, and slimy.

Great adjectives for our ribbiting amphibian friends but if they also describe your compost pile, you’ve got a problem.

Your pile is likely compacted from too much fresh grass or other matting material. This means it has too much water and not enough air. When your pile doesn’t get enough air the aerobic bacteria (air-loving, good bacteria) cannot survive and that makes way for anaerobic bacteria (the bad smelling, slow composting arch nemesis of aerobic).

While you do want some water in your pile (think wrung out sponge), too much can create oxygen starved pockets of slimy anaerobic compost. Yuck.

The fix is easy. Get in there and fluff up your pile by turning it with a shovel, pitchfork, or compost turner. Add some shredded leaves, shredded paper, sawdust or other fibrous material to reduce the matting effect. With the added air, your friendly aerobic bacteria should start heating your compost and we can happily leave wet and slimy where they belong, with the frogs.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

What You Can Learn About Composting from the 3 Little Pigs...

Talking animals and hungry wolves aside, the story of the 3 Little Pigs proves there are many materials with which to build a compost bin, some better than others. If you combine these supplies with the basic skills of swinging a hammer or bending some wire, you could be the proud owner of your very own DIY compost bin.

Woven Wire Bins are Better than Straw
A bin made from galvanized wire can easily be moved around the garden as needed and will leave your wallet fat (um, if it was fat in the first place). Simple decide how large of a bin you want (the ideal diameter is 3-5 feet) and multiply that by 3.2. That is the length of galvanized 14-gauge wire to buy. Form the wire into a circle and fasten the ends with 4 small chain snaps or plastic zip ties. This type of bin is perfect for extra leaves.

Wooden Bins are Great, Just Don't Use Sticks
If you're concerned that a little huffing and puffing (or freak hurricane) will blow your bin down, consider building a wooden bin. The easiest of wooden bins reuses 4 old pallets. Simply screw or nail 3 wood pallets together to form 3 sides of a square. On the remaining side attach 4 bolt latches to the front edge of the bin and the last pallet. This way you can remove one side to easily turn the compost.

Brick Bins: Your Strongest Defense against Long-Winded Wolves
If you want a bin that really says "not by the hair on my chinny, chin, chin" a block or brick bin is for you. Sturdy, durable, and easily accessible, all you need is the ability to stack blocks which most of us acquired before preschool. Just lay the blocks or bricks without mortar leaving spaces between each block to permit the air to flow through. Stack to form three sides of a square. Leave one side open so you can easily access the compost for turning.

Just as our favorite precarious home-builders have demonstrated, some materials should not be used when constructing a bin. Straw, sticks, and other easily decomposing materials will quickly become more like your compost and less like your bin. When possible, use non-arsenic treated lumber or cedar wood for construction since other wood will rot with the compost. Visit this website to find detailed plans for building other types of compost bins:

Disclaimer: Should you happen to encounter a big bad wolf in Cincinnati I do not recommend seeking protection in your compost bin even if it is constructed from bricks. Good luck and happy building!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Grass is Always Greener..and Now I Know Why!

Three years ago when I bought my first house I knew I wanted to backyard compost. But living in the city with a backyard the size of a postage stamp (seriously, we mow our grass with a weed-eater) I was a little nervous that my neighbors would complain. I know- who cares what they think, its my yard. But I really didn't want to be "that" neighbor with the backyard everyone resents.

My anxiety increased when I moved in and saw the yard next door. My neighbors have a fantastic garden. We're talking highly-manicured-English-knot-garden-cascading-fountain-right-out-of-a-magazine yard. I didn't know how they would respond to, "Excuse me, would you mind if I placed my rotting vegetables next to your rose garden?"

While I was sure to be pegged as the nutty environmentalist sooner or later, I rather preferred later, so I looked for an unassuming spot. Easily 90% of my yard can be seen from my neighbor's yard, limiting my options considerably. I also wanted a place that didn't get too much sunlight or wind that would dry out the pile. And it had to be close enough to the house for easy access (especially in the winter when I run outside in my slippers).

Just as I resigned myself to the fact that no perfect place existed and that my neighbors would just have to deal, a miracle happened. In the corner of my neighbor's perfect back yard, up against our shared fence, they placed a homemade (although perfectly crafted) wooden compost bin. That is when I realized any serious gardener worth his or her weight knows the value of backyard compost.

So I promptly put my less fashionable but still respectable bin in the perfect spot. Not only was I reducing my waste and shrinking my carbon footprint as every good little environmentalist should, but I was one step closer to becoming a more serious, albeit not quite English-knot-garden-cascading-waterfall serious, but still serious gardener.