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.