Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Joy of Composting (or The Fruits of My Labor), Part 1

Last spring I decided that I needed a new composter. I had tried to do the right thing a few years ago by going to the Swampscott town hall and purchasing one for $20 that the town had acquired through a program with the Mass Dept. of Environmental Protection (DEP). Unfortunately it was from a program ten years prior and I bought it sight unseen, so I was somewhat dismayed when they dragged up three pieces of dusty black plastic from the basement and presented them to me. Anyway, I took it home and assembled it with blue plastic ties (like the ones you used to use to close your luggage before 9/11). It turns out that the DEP offers two types of bins through its program - the "New Age Composter" (that's the one that I got) and the "Earth Machine". There were many things that I didn't like about the New Age Composter. First, the lid was a big cone that just sat on top and most of the time was somewhere on my lawn or in a garden bed because the wind would lift it off and blow it hither thither and yon. Second, although it's described as "rodent-proof", some animal (squirrel? raccoon?) ate a hole in the side wall. Not pretty. (That's the composter in the photo on the left, just before I replaced it.)

On the plus side, when I dismantled it, there was lots of good composted soil, full of juicy little red worms. I decided that I would plant a garden like one I had many years ago in Toronto...a garden in the round, with the composter in the center. This way the good nutrients from the compost leach out into the soil around. Last year I had planted beans, since beans are a good crop for adding nitrogen to the soil, and farmers often plant beans as a first crop. I bought an Earth Machine in Salem at a green festival and plant sale. I paid $40, which I think was too much. They sell the same ones at the Marblehead Farmer's market for $25. You can learn more about the Mass DEP program here. I see that back in 1994 Swampscott purchased 300 of those New Age composters (I wonder how many are left?). The Earth Machine is really beautiful. It has a lid that locks on and a nice door to retrieve soil.

I had to do a lot of preparation, but that was the fun part. I dug out the old composter and spread the lovely composted soil on my flower beds and around the expanded garden area in the big circle. I turned it over and then dug the hole for the new composter. Alex dear did the installation...putting in the pins to hold it in the ground and leveling it.

Once in the ground, you're ready to get started. I compost most of my kitchen waste, which seems to add up. The only things that don't go in are meat and lemons (I use a lot of lemons and have heard that lemons are acidic and some compost worms don't like lemon peel). I put the lemons in the garbage disposal and that keeps it smelling very nice. I have a nice little plastic container that I got for free at the Marblehead Farmers Market one week. It has a handle and a lid that closes tight. I accumulate my kitchen waste in that until it's full, and then I carry it out to the composter. I mix it in with my shovel and then throw some dirt on top. This keeps down the fruit flies and any smell, although with my new Earth Machine I don't worry because the lid fits on so nice and tight. I make sure that I have wet coffee grounds and may even add some water to my container so it's easy to empty it, and that keeps the compost nice and moist. It seems to me that adding the dirt and keeping things wet helps the process along. It's also important to situate your composter in an area where it will get sun, because the heat kills bacteria and again, speeds the process along.

One thing to note about situating your composter or compost heap - check your local by-laws to see if there are specific rules about how far to site away from your property line or neighbors.