Special/Signature Issues » Home Style

Gardening: Breaking It Down

Composting lets you save the world one decay at a time.


Let nature do the work

Composting is the breaking down of organic matter into a nutrient-rich substance that can be absorbed by the earth. There are five critical factors in making the process work, according to www.mastercomposter.com: air, moisture, carbon and nitrogen materials, mass and time. Incidentally, these factors are essential for everything from wine to diamonds to life.

The big players in the game are nitrogen and carbon, which are released from organic materials by microorganisms. If carbon were asked to describe itself, it would probably say: brownish, combustible, dry sense of humor. Nitrogen, on the other hand, would consider itself greenish, prone to stink, quick to break down, needy. Carbon is found in leaves, twigs, sawdust, cornstalks and hair. Nitrogen is in fruits and vegetables, and their leavings, grass, beer, bat guano (should you compost in a cave) and coffee grounds.

Composting generally begins by building a pile or bin in the yard, about one cubic yard (or 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet), in which the detritus of life in a house is mixed with your carbon base. Bins tend to keep things neat and can be easily fashioned from structures such as rabbit hutches.

A carbon layer on the ground is important to keep the mix aerated. The ideal ratio is 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen by weight. Fruits and vegetables are good, but avoid adding animal material, as it tends to decompose and attract larger critters. Select a favorite pitchfork, turn the works every two weeks to one month (or after Botox treatments), and watch stuff fall apart for the greater good.

Warming a billion tiny hearts

If all the factors are balanced — not too wet, dry or stinky — the center of the pile should ideally reach about 140 degrees as the bacteria really get going. So yes, that banana peel can burn you. When you add new material and turn it, the material will break down fully in three to four months, depending on the time of year.

And with what are you left? A dense, rich, moist material that is chock-full of nutrients just raring to get back in the game of life, as an "amendment" to lawns, gardens or potted plants. And unlike chemical fertilizers, there is no negative effect on the environment.

If animal husbandry is your thing, consider vermicomposting. Build a worm box, fill it with red worms and your favorite compostables, and watch the little fellas go to town. With the proper circulation and time, you'll have a box full of worm castings, the digested material that makes a lovely fertilizer salad. One pound of worms will go through one pound of foodstuffs in no time.

And lest you think big companies haven't caught wind of the benefits of this great big balancing act, consider Ukrop's Central Kitchen. They're the folks who cut, dice and chop all the fruits and vegetables for the salads bars and prepackaged meals at all the stores. Late in 2001, Pat Hadden realized just how much organic waste was being generated by the kitchen — the watermelon rinds alone! So a deal was struck with Watkins Nurseries to begin a composting program. Now the 15 to 20 tons of vegetable leavings produced every week are taken to Watkins and processed in seven rows, each 100 yards long, using tractors to turn the material. The compost that is produced can be bought in Ukrop's stores and small garden centers under the name Spring Earth.

"You've returned to the earth what came from the earth," says Melissa Harding, food technologist for the company's technical services department. "To people who are into gardening, that's pretty rewarding."

A Little Advice

Prevent Pests. To keep pests out of the pile, you have a few choices: Build a bin with a screen, bury the edible materials in the center of the pile or bury them directly in your garden or yard about 8 feet deep.

Composting Gear. For more information on building a bin or worm box, or to buy composting tools, visit www.mastercomposter.com.


Add a comment