Composting during quarantine

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We first want to acknowledge how difficult and challenging things currently are. We all need to take time to adjust to living in our new normal, learning new routines and doing what we can to flatten the curve. We can, however, help the environment and each other by staying home.

If you would like to help reduce landfill waste/greenhouse gases, save money on trash tags and find new ways to help your garden, all while still staying at home, there’s an easy solution for you. We at CCE-Tompkins are here to provide a sustainable and economically friendly option to explore as the weather warms - home composting.

Home composting involves converting food scraps and other appropriate organic material into a nutrient-rich soil amendment used for gardening. Composting at home is a fantastic option for people who are gardening at home, be it for food production, recreational enjoyment or helping local native pollinators.

It’s simple to start and easy to maintain and can be done both outdoors and/or indoors. Figuring out your needs for composting within your available space will help you determine which one, or both, will work best. This article focuses on outdoor composting, but information on indoor composting and other resources can be found in the website at the end of the article.

When starting to compost outdoors, there is a six-step guideline. First, pick which style of outdoor compost system/bin will work best for you. In this article, we are covering a basic composting system with lasagna layering, but feel free to explore other options or methods that may work better for you (again, via the resources below).

The second step is to figure out where to place your home compost. It’s best to put your compost where you’ll remember to use it, usually near or next to the garden for efficiency and ease. The next step involves what to feed your compost.

Step three is gathering your organic material. When gathering materials for a compost bin, it’s best to use a diverse variety of “browns” and “greens.”

Browns are the carbon-rich energy sources needed for healthy compost. They include things like dead leaves, newspaper, dead branches and cardboard.

Greens are the nitrogen-rich sources needed for growth in healthy compost. They are materials like non-dairy/meat food scraps, untreated grass clippings and pulled weeds that haven’t flowered or gone to seed.

Remember, your compost is vegetarian, so keep that in mind when gathering the materials. After gathering your appropriate browns and greens, it’s time to move on to step four and add these materials to your compost bin.

An easy and recommended method for adding materials to your compost bin is “lasagna layering.” This is a method of alternating layers of browns and greens to create optimal compost health. To start, create an initial, base layer of sticks to help create airflow within the compost bin.

One of the reasons for stinky compost bins is a lack of proper airflow. Your compost is a living, breathing thing that needs air just as much as we do. After the stick layer, add a bowl-shaped layer of browns - higher on the sides than the middle. Inside of this bowl of browns, place a thin (1-to-2-inch) layer of greens.

Cover with another layer of browns so no greens are visible and repeat until you’ve used your materials up. After finishing, make sure all greens are covered with browns to prevent critters from becoming interested in your compost efforts. Assuming that there is more space in your compost bin, continue layering browns and greens until your bin is full or you are ready to turn/harvest the material.

Step five, to turn your compost bin to speed up the process of composting, is optional, so if you can’t do this step or aren’t interested in it, skip to step six. Either way, compost will be made, so turning is strictly up to you.

Step six, the most rewarding and fun part, is harvesting your compost! When the bottom of the bin looks and smells like rich, crumbly earth and no food scraps are present, you’re ready to use your compost for your garden or house plants.

Please note, every type of plant has different requirements, so check to see if your garden/house plants would benefit from compost before adding it. After harvesting, keep adding layers of browns and greens, and you’ll have a happy compost system for your home.

If you have any questions about what method of composting to use, what to put into your compost, or general questions about composting, please don’t hesitate to refer back to the CCE-Tompkins website (ccetompkins.org/compost-resources) for more information or call the “Rotline” or compost hotline at 607-272-2292 x 124. Enjoy composting!

Kady Maser is a master composter in training with CCE-Tompkins’ Compost Education Program. This program is sponsored by the Tompkins County Department of Recycling and Materials Management. This is the latest installment of the Signs of Sustainability series produced by Sustainable Tompkins. For more information about the organization, visit their website at SustainableTompkins.org.

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