My husband rushed to put all of his seedlings in his newly built garden bed before we headed to Florida for a few weeks. The light began fading from the day as he tenderly placed the last plant in the soil he’d been preparing for a few weeks. And then the heavens opened up.
He raced to the porch just as the rain poured down on the plants. Now almost three weeks later, I’ll let you be the judge whether that was a good omen. The plants are all thriving here in the Smoky Mountains.
Before we left, we put together a simple, yet effective compost bin. We’ve been unable to compost for the past ten months, and it felt wasteful to throw away onion skins, broccoli stalks, eggshells, and coffee grounds. We put the new bin right next to the deck steps for easy access from the kitchen.
Here’s an excerpt from my book, From Seed to Table, which contains a section on creating a place for your scraps from the kitchen.
I’ve been composting kitchen waste ever since I had a small rooftop garden in my efficiency apartment in Ann Arbor in 1979. Since then I’ve composted on a twenty-acre homestead, in an urban backyard, and behind the shed in my current home in Pennsylvania. It’s a simple process and begins with finding a container with a sealable lid to keep in the kitchen for the food scraps.
It’s not a complicated process, although many folks hesitate to begin because they believe it’s difficult. If you simply follow a few basic instructions, you’ll be rolling in the black gold of the gardening world as quickly as the tomato plants begin sprouting green fruit.
Not all of your waste from the kitchen makes good compostable material. Avoid the use of meat scraps, fish byproducts, cheese, bones, fats, oils, or grease because they attract wild animals, take a very long time to break down, and can spread harmful bacteria into the soil and infect plants.
Eggshells, coffee grounds, and vegetable matter make the best material to start the process of minting your very own black gold. We buy brown (unbleached) coffee filters, so we throw the grounds and the filter in the compost bin as well.
Once the container is filled with your kitchen scrapes, empty it into the compost bin and cover with either brown or green organic material. Making the rich topsoil requires a balancing act between green materials and brown materials placed on top of the kitchen scraps. The green things are those still close to the live stage, such as grass clippings, food scraps, and some manures. Don’t use the manure from pets or pigs, as it will promote the growth of harmful bacteria. Chicken manure is the best kind. The browns have been dead for a while and consist of dry leaves, woody materials, and even shredded paper. We use the ashes from our fireplace, too. Layering these elements, with the browns taking up the most space, leads to the decomposition of the materials. Air and water are essential in assisting in this process, but usually there is enough liquid in the compost container and in the air without watering the pile. If you notice the material in the bin looks dry, go ahead and water it.
There are products you can purchase from shredders to rotating drums to three-stage bins. You can spend from $20 to several hundreds of dollars to make a compost bin. If you live in the extreme north, you may need to invest in the more sophisticated type of equipment to ensure the success of your compost bin. However, I’ve composted in Michigan, Florida, and now Pennsylvania and managed to do it successfully without expending tons of money.
When I lived in an urban setting in Florida, I did the simplest thing. I bought a plastic garbage can for under $10 and cut off the bottom. I drilled holes all over the lid and sides to allow airflow. You can spend a little more on a galvanized garbage can, but it will be more difficult to remove the bottom. I dug a hole about three-inches deep in the soil the diameter of the can and placed the bottom into the ground, filling around the outer sides to make it secure.
I covered the bottom on the inside with the dirt I removed to make the hole, making sure it was nice and loose. Then I placed my kitchen scraps on top. I covered those with leaves from my yard and put the lid back on the garbage can. Every time I put new material from the kitchen into the bin, I stirred the whole thing with a shovel.
In Pennsylvania, we bought a simple compost bin from Lowes for under $50. It has small panels on all four sides that slide off for easy removal of the dirt from the bottom.
In the spring, I fill flowerpots with the healthy rich soil from the bottom of the compost bin to assist grateful petunias, pansies, impatiens, and marigolds. We’ll gaze upon the blossoming colors on the patio and take satisfaction in making fertile soil that originated in our kitchen and garden. Our vegetables, herbs, and flowerbed plants will all receive a healthy dose of the soil as well, and then we start the process all over again.
Earthworms are the essential ingredient for turning the scraps into rich dark soil. If I see a worm in the yard, I’ll pick it up and carry it to the bin, but mostly the earthworms find it all by themselves. If you don’t see any in your pile, buy a small container of earthworms from the local bait shop and let them loose. They eat the organic matter, and quite graciously poop behind nice dirt.
I love the symmetry of composting. It’s a way to be a part of the cycle of nature without disturbing or destroying it.
How’s your gardening going? If you’re not a gardener, what’s going on with local food at the Farmer’s Market? Always love to hear what’s going on in different parts of the country. We figure we’re about a month to six weeks ahead from where we were in Pittsburgh. Even though we’re in the mountains, it’s still the south! Happy gardening and eating the luscious foods of spring and summer.