Home & Garden Columns

Garden Variety: Waste Not, Fret Not: Even Composting Wrong Works

By Ron Sullivan
Friday October 27, 2006

The older and bumblinger I get—and believe me, I’m starting from an advanced baseline of bumblitude—the more I appreciate how forgiving a process gardening is. Composting is one of the more forgiving parts of it, and cheapest. It can stink if you do it wrong—but, if you do it wrong, it generally still works.  

The theory: Pile some greens and some browns in alternating layers, aerate, and in a little while you’ll have wonderful fertilizer instead of garbage. Sounds easy until you have a can of garbage and you start analyzing. 

“Greens” means wet stuff, high-nitrogen: vegetable garbage (meat scraps are strictly for industrial-size piles) or fresh leaves, grass clippings. “Browns” means dry stuff, high-carbon: straw, shavings, dried leaves, sawdust.  

What else is compostable? Paper towels! Dryer lint! Dust bunnies! The stuff from the vacuum cleaner! Torn newspaper! Love letters cut up into little bitty pieces! 

Got a paper shredder? The confidential shreds get obliterated at the bottom of the compost pile. Pile the coffee grounds right on top of your classified secrets. (Coffee grounds are high-nitrogen seed meal, after all.) Run eggshells through the blender with a cup of water and toss the result onto the pile.  

You’re supposed to do all this in layers, get it into a 70/30 ratio, keep it moist but not wet, turn it every so often to let air in, even take its temperature, fuss fuss fuss. You know what? All that speeds the process, but even if you do it haphazardly you’ll get compost. One thing: put your heap on the ground; if you must put it on pavement, add a few shovelfuls of dirt from the garden by way of starter. In fact, that’s a good idea anyway.  

Sometimes you even get pleasant surprises. A few years ago, we had something in the bin way out back that drew biggish black flies. They’d spend hours sunning on the white garage doors. It was spring, and we started hearing a familiar terweep! all day, and we discovered a family of black phoebes, a pair and two youngsters in residence. They took care of the flies most entertainingly, darting from their perches to catch them with an audible snap and treating the garage doors as a smorgasbord.  

It’s nice to have a process that works well even if you do it badly but rewards learning and skill too. (OK, another process.) A well-managed compost heap does have an advantage besides speed: it gets hot enough to kill off a lot of disease organisms. Local organizations and Alameda County’s Stopwaste/Bay-Friendly program can mail you more information, and it’s easy enough to find in the library.  

You can become a Master Composter and earn college credits for it through the county, too; applications for the weekly February-through-May 2007 class are being accepted now. The county will also sell you a Biostack composter for $39 and/or a Wriggly Wranch worm composter for $29, if you’re a resident.  

Call 444-SOIL (7645) or see www.stopwaste.org for more information and to order or sign up.