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Composting 1-2-3

Here are three composting mistakes, three composting must-do’s and three sources for more information.

I’m a big fan of composting (although some who know me may characterize my interest as “rabid”). Other people may bring home leftovers from restaurants in doggy bags. Me? I’ve been known to bring home big bags of watermelon rinds or shrimp shells from summer parties. I’ve got long-standing agreement with my local coffee shop owner, Bill Wegner at , to collect used coffee grounds. Some of my friends save egg shells for my compost pile; others gift me with bags of excess water plants from their fish pond.

Over the past few years, I’ve learned a few composting lessons the hard way. If you’ve been considering starting a compost pile of your own, read on to learn a few things to avoid, a few to embrace—and where to find more information if you, too, dig (so to speak) composting.

THREE COMPOSTING *DON'T’S* 

DON’T compost in a covered trash can--unless you’re ready to deal with a potentially stinky mess. While I thought I knew what I was doing one spring, the ingredients I added to our plastic 60-gallon yard waste container contained way too much nitrogen (green stuff) and too much moisture. My mini-pile began to rot, smell and become slimy. The mess was quietly disposed of and the container retired from compost duty.

DON’T add these items to your pile: weeds full of seeds or pesticides, diseased plants, barbeque charcoal or wood ash, lime, meat, grease, bones, dairy products, animal feces, wood chunks or large loads of soggy matter. Any of these can cause serious digestive problems for the micro-organisms residing in your pile. Weeds with seeds can cause problems later by sprouting in unwanted areas. Meat, grease, bones and dairy products can smell or attract unwanted wildlife. Feces can carry disease. Ash, lime and charcoal can throw the pH balance of your pile way off.

DON’T waste your money on specialized compost equipment. There are plenty of businesses ready to sell fancy compost tumblers, kitchen “scrap keepers,” or compost “accelerators” or “starters” and the like. Tumblers can cost several hundred dollars, but will quickly be filled up volume and take up valuable yard space. In the kitchen, any covered container can serve as scrap keeper. Since you’ll likely keep it out of sight, why shell out for a stainless steel or crockery version? Outside, a pile that includes a decent mix of ingredients will turn into compost sooner or later—with or without commercial starters.

THREE COMPOSTING *DO’S*

DO (religiously) collect kitchen vegetable and fruit scraps for your compost pile. We rely on a covered bucket to hold coffee grounds, egg shells, vegetable trimmings... and even food that’s gone “iffy” in the refrigerator. Plastic cat litter containers are perfect-- their tight-fitting tops keep smells inside, and they’re large enough to collect several days’ worth of kitchen scraps from our two-person household.

DO save grass clippings. Every week I add about half of wheelbarrow-full of grass clippings either into our compost pile where the nitrogen-rich grass heats up the pile quickly. The other half of the clippings gets scattered over exposed dirt and around plants in the flower beds so it can act as mulch and retain moisture. (Note: this advice only applies to yards that are not chemically treated.)

DO add maple seeds to your active pile. With the (belated) arrival of warmer, dryer weather, gutters will soon begin filling with those ubiquitous flying “helicopter” seeds from your neighbors’ maple trees. Don’t curse—instead, add them to your compost pile so they’ll be tricked into sprouting in a controlled area (i.e. NOT your flower beds). Later, the action of turning the pile will kill the sprouts, which will then add all kinds of nutrients to the finished compost.

THREE PLACES TO DIG FOR MORE INFO 

BOOKS—the collection includes at least eight books on getting started in composting. Look for Let It Rot!, The Gardener’s Guide to Composting by Stu Campbell; Compost, The Natural Way to Make Food For your Garden, by Ken Thompson; and my favorite (for its unexpected humor), Compost This Book!--The Art of Composting For Your Yard, Community and Planet, by Tom Christopher and Marty Asher. 

INTERNET—My top-favorite composting go-to site is Master Composter, which contains a wealth of detail about all things compost. This site lets you post online questions that will be answered by composting experts. You’ll find additional information at Washington State University’s Extension pages by clicking this link.

FELLOW COMPOSTERS—Tap the composting knowledge of the pros at the Chicago Botanic Garden, or start talking compost with gardening friends and acquaintances. And the Morton Grove Farmers’ Market can be a great resource, too.  

Happy composting! 

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