Composting

Discussion in 'Crops & Gardens' started by Ken Anderson, Nov 2, 2015.

  1. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Veteran Member
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    I know we've discussed composting here before but since I don't see a thread devoted to it, I thought I'd start this one.

    Currently, I have two large compost areas but one of them has itself composted. The first one that I made had walls that consisted only of pickets hammered into the ground and held together with compostable rope, since I wasn't sure, at the time, that composting was something that I was going to do on a regular basis. Well, that one is about four years old now and the pickets, as well as the rope, have pretty well composted themselves.

    My second compost area was made from scrap lumber and a couple of old doors. It will probably hold up for a few more years yet but it looks kind of sloppy.

    One problem that I've seen with large ground-level compost piles is that by the time a compost pile gets ready to be used, in about three years, it is full of roots from surrounding trees, so I am able to extract some of the compost for use elsewhere but, largely, it builds up the ground level in the area of the compost pile.

    Today, I set some metal posts for another compost pile, to replace the first (which was in a bad place anyhow). Using a posthole digger, I dug holes for six posts, sinking them (roughly) down to the anticipated frost level, set the posts, and filled it all in with concrete. Since we are having some pretty nice weather, for November, I think I'm going to lay a thin slab tomorrow or the next day, weather permitting. That should prevent the roots from taking over my compost, and allow me to scrape the bottom when the compost is ready, and still allow worms to access it through the sides, which will be made of chain-link fence.

    With large compost piles, I set whole cardboard boxes full of compostable trash, including shredded and unshredded paper, household trash, etc. and fill in around them with leaves and other stuff. As the boxes compost at a different rate than the stuff around them, it leaves air pockets in the compost, which keeps me from having to turn it over.
     
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  2. Sheldon Scott

    Sheldon Scott Very Well-Known Member
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    Compost needs to be turned and mixed regularly to speed up the process. For people like me, without a tractor and bucket, it's difficult to make enough compost for the garden. Organic material will, as you say, decompose in three years or so but I need it every year and much more than I can make. I do make compost, some in a large bin and some just in a pile, but I buy most of my compost.

    I currently buy from an individual who makes it on his property. Before we moved here I bought compost from the city landfill. I've been paying $30 for a pickup truckload. I just bought two truckloads this fall to refill my beds. Some of it is still in the truck.
     
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  3. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Veteran Member
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    The purpose in turning it over is the introduce air to the compost near the bottom, and the closed boxes accomplish that quite well without the effort. Oh, I do stick a fork in it every once in a while but I don't actually turn it over. I also like to begin with a few bricks or rocks at the bottom of the pile, since that allows for air pockets as well. I get some good compost from mine, and the full, complete, closed cardboard boxes that I use throughout are thoroughly composted in three years. If I were careful to leave things like cat litter out of it, I could harvest the compost in two years but since I compost cat litter as well, I let it go for three. That's why I want to have three large piles going, so that I can have one that is ready each spring.

    With a large pile, I have heat composting going on in the center and vermicomposting around the edges. Last spring, I actually bought some worms for the first time because I wanted to speed things up, but I generally get plenty of them regardless. I think it did help. Here in Maine, composting goes slowly during the winter, although it continues as long as the pile is deep and thick enough. By spring, however, the pile is so high that I can barely reach the top of it to add more stuff, since I'm adding things to it all winter, plus there is the snow and the ice that has been deposited at different levels. I had a huge pile this spring, which is why I decided to add some worms. Despite adding boxes and loose compostables to it throughout the spring, summer and fall, it is still a level pile.

    You're right in that it takes a whole lot of compostables to produce a small amount of compost. I bring some in too, but I don't have to buy it since our town has a compost pile that is free to residents. I compost not only for the compost but because it greatly reduces the amount of trash that I have to carry to the transfer station. Here, we don't have municipal or private trash pick up services so we have to haul our own trash. By composting, I was able to cut my trips down from about three a week to one every couple of weeks, and it doesn't smell up my Chevrolet Tracker on the way there.
     
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  4. Sheldon Scott

    Sheldon Scott Very Well-Known Member
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    Turning compost regularly adds air and moisture and speeds up the process tremendously. A pile can be completely composted in a couple of months rather than years for static composting. It's just too much work when you have to do it by hand. My piles seldom get turned.
     
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  5. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Veteran Member
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    Yes, it's too much work, which is why I work around it by creating air pockets in my compost.
     
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  6. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Veteran Member
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    I have begun building my new compost pile today, laying most of a slab, in which I have embedded six metal posts that I can attach fencing to. I did a poor job of estimating the amount of concrete that I need, so I didn't have enough to complete the slab and I'll have to finish it tomorrow. I think this will work well because the sides will allow air, and the slab should keep roots out of the compost and allow me to more easily get at the compost when a batch is completed. It's nothing fancy, but a compost pile doesn't have to be fancy. I'll add pictures tomorrow.
     
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  7. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Veteran Member
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    Okay, nothing fancy, but my new compost pile is ready to be used.

    [​IMG]
    This is after the slab was poured. I could have smoothed out the concrete more but it's a compost pile, so I didn't bother. As you can see, Ella, my building inspector, is looking it over.

    [​IMG]
    I put the sides on today, and I'll start adding stuff to it when the other one gets full. Before the snow comes for the winter, I'll probably add some stuff to it, like a couple of large cardboard boxes that I need to get rid of, filled with fallen leaves, since my yard is covered with them right now.

    [​IMG]
    This is the active one, made with an old door and some scrap lumber. As you can see, the door is about to compost itself, so I will add some more stuff to it, top it off with some more leaves, and then cover it for the winter. By spring, it should be down level with the top of the door or lower, and by the following spring, it will be ready to harvest. After that, I will lay down another slab and build a more organized compost pile in the same area.

    [​IMG]
    This was my first compost pile. It was made up of pickets hammered into the ground and held together by compostable string and plastic bags. In the next few days, I'll pick up the plastic from it, and I might try scraping what compost I can get from it, but it is in a bad position, and is heavily rooted, so I don't expect to get much from it. On the positive side, it won't hurt to build up the soil there anyhow. I need three compost piles, but I think I'll put the third one next to the one I completed today, not in this location.
     
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  8. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Veteran Member
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    I'm starting the compost off with some large boxes full of stuff, which includes smaller boxes of compostables, shredded and unshredded paper, food wastes, coffee grounds, and leaves. These boxes will collapse with the rain, and be crushed by other stuff that is added on top of it, but it will leave several air pockets, particularly within the smaller boxes, that will aid in composting, allowing it to compost within two or three years without having to turn it. Note the slits near the bottom of the larger box, as it had to double as a cat playroom for a while before it could be fairly discarded.

    [​IMG]
     
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  9. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Veteran Member
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    [​IMG]
    This is how I start my compost piles, with a layer of boxes filled with compostables, such as table scraps, paper and cardboard, some shredded, some not. Each box includes some leaves, as that seems best to start the compost process. I began this pile a little late in the season, so I won't have a colony of worms working through the winter, in all likelihood. Some were no doubt introduced with the leaves but, since I am unlikely to have a thick enough pile before freezing temperatures come, they probably won't survive. So I will likely have a very high pile in the spring, at which time I might buy some worms to get things going.

    Once I get a base of boxes, I will be adding layers of leaves, shredded paper and cardboard, and some more filled boxes and bags, mostly smaller than these, as well as table scraps and the like. As I mentioned earlier, this arrangement places air pockets throughout the pile, not requiring turning of the pile. If I were able to turn the pile periodically, it would compost more quickly, but I have more time than I have energy, so this works well for me.
     
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  10. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Veteran Member
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    [​IMG]
    A couple more boxes, and I am ready to start laying the compost with leaves. Some of these boxes have small boxes inside of them, along with other compostables, and most include leaves, which usually begins the compost process quickly. Beginning with a layer of boxes, my compost pile will include enough air pockets to allow composting to go on without my having to turn it over. After this, it will proceed pretty much like any other compost pile, except that I will continue to add boxes from time to time, although smaller boxes than these, but most of the larger cardboard boxes that I add once I have a good base will be shredded.

    As I mentioned earlier, I began this compost pile late in the season so I am unlikely to have enough of a mass for it to do a lot of composting during a Maine winter, as that would require 1) worms that aren't frozen stiff; or 2) enough of a composting mass for heat composting to continue in the center of the pile. If wintery weather holds off for a while, it is possible that I'll have some composting going on in this pile, but it is more likely that it will have to wait until spring. I do have another active pile that I'll be adding to, as well, and which does have enough of a mass to keep the worms warm enough to continue working throughout the winter. I compost pretty much everything that isn't metal or plastic.
     
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  11. Corie Henson

    Corie Henson Very Well-Known Member
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    We have here what we call a compost bin but it's an informal once. It is a planter box where we throw excess vegetable cuttings and fruit rinds. There appears what they call vermicast which we call waste matter of earthworms. We use that vermicast in mixing potting materials although I am not sure if it is fertile like the compost. But for fertilizing plants, what we use is the mixture found in the compost bin.

    I'm not really keen on the compost because our usual fertilizer is the water that was used to rinse fish and meat that comes from the market. We have small plastic basins where we wash the market items for cleaning and thereby getting the benefit of the sediments.
     
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  12. Sheldon Scott

    Sheldon Scott Very Well-Known Member
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    Corie, I built a fish cleaning station outside with a garbage disposal in the sink. When I clean fish I grind the fish bodies and guts and add them to the garden.

    The scraps in your planter should be very good fertilizer.
     
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  13. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Veteran Member
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    [​IMG]
    The base of the compost pile is completed. Now, if I can get one more snow melt before winter comes, I can cover all that with a thick layer of leaves. I'll be using both compost pile through the winter, placing some of the more quickly compostable material in the other compost pile, which I want to be able to harvest a year from next spring. Judging from past winters, we may get a few more weeks of above-freezing weather before winter descends upon us for the season. If so, I might actually get some composting going on here.

    A base of boxes allows me to compost without turning it over, and it works very well. The stuff I place into this compost pile from this point on will be the more traditional compostables, as well as some smaller boxes, but I won't be placing any more large boxes on it for the rest of the winter.
     
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  14. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Veteran Member
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    [​IMG]
    All right! The temperatures here are in the 50s today, so our snow is mostly melted, and I could get at the leaves again. This is how the compost pile starts. From here on in, it is arranged pretty much like anyone else's compost pile, except that I do add small cardboard boxes full of stuff and paper bags of compost to it. Mostly though, it's shredded paper and cardboard, leaves when I have them, and food scraps.

    [​IMG]
    Here's my other compost pile. I'm still adding new stuff to it but I'll stop adding to this pile next spring, and it should be ready to harvest a year from then, since I'll only be adding things that compost quickly, such as food scraps, shredded cardboard, and leaves.
     
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  15. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Veteran Member
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    [​IMG]
    I am posting these as much for myself, or more so, than anything else, so that I can see the changes in the compost pile. We bought a couple of things that came in big boxes, so I decided to add a couple of layers of cardboard, followed with leaves. It looks almost full, and might be that way through the winter but, as the stuff composts, it will sink down, and it will be about three years before the compost is complete, and I'll be lucky if it comes up to more than a quarter of the way from the floor.
     
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  16. Cheryl Torrie

    Cheryl Torrie Member
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    I have never had a compost bin or pile or even purchased any. What do you use the compost for? Is it a replacement for top soil, fertilizer or manure? Or do you do it to cut down on the amount of compostable items in a land fill? The new one is very nice and you will be able to use it forever but will the foundation limit the amount of earth worms or will they settle in there from the sides? Do small rodents also go in there because the compost is warmer than the frozen ground? I know, way too many questions. Feel free to tell me to Google it.:) Thank you for sharing the pictures though they did get me thinking about one of my own.
     
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  17. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Veteran Member
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    The typical reason for compost bins or piles is for gardening. Rather than depositing compostable materials in a landfill, they can be composted to serve a useful purpose. For the average home gardener, a compost bin might suffice.

    I use my compost to build up the level of the soil on my property, however. Millinocket was a paper mill before it was a town. Before the town was built, the paper mill deposited coal ash, its waste material, throughout the area, filling in small ponds and wetlands. This was back in the late 1800s. Great Northern Paper Company was once the largest pulp and paper mill in the world. Most of its early buildings were constructed by the mill owners for the purpose of housing its employees. Mine and the house across the street from me were boarding houses, meant to house single workers. I have an old post card of Millinocket that shows my street with only two houses on it -- mine and the one across the street.

    Old maps show a pond where my house is, as is the case with much of the older area of the town. My house and yard site on a bed of coal ash deposited by the mill, which was then covered over with a few inches of soil. You can't plant just any tree native to Maine here because only those that root laterally, or which are able to produce roots strong enough to drive through the coal ash, will survive. We had a cherry tree in our back yard when we bought the house. Once it grew to a large height, it fell over. We still have cherries because new trees have grown from the roots.

    In order to plant root crops here, I have to use raised bedding. I have been planting potatoes in bags made for yard leaves, and that works fine. Carrots would grow a couple of inches and then bend, unable to get through the coal ash.

    The town maintains a compost pile which produces very good compost that is free for the taking, for residents. When I first bought the house, I mad several trips to the compost pile, hauling enough compost to build up one side of my front yard. Millinocket doesn't have trash pickup services. We haul our own trash to a transfer station, so I was making three or four trips to the transfer station each week, hauling trash, often coming back with a some compost from the town's compost yard. By producing my own compost, I can limit the trips to the transfer station to about one a week, or less, and I don't have to haul compost anymore. That's a little harder to do with my Chevrolet Tracker, as opposed to the Chevrolet S-10 pickup that I had when I first moved here. So I spread my compost onto my yard, filling up some areas that tend to be wet, and gradually building up the level of the soil.

    There are several methods of composting, but there are two general ones:
    1. Bacteria
    2. Worms
    If you leave it sit long enough, everything compostable will compost. But in order to create compost in a reasonable amount of time, you have to create conditions where there are suitable mixtures of air, moisture, carbon, nitrogen, and warmth. You won't see them but if you are not using worms to create your compost, you will be using bacteria. Actually, even if you are using worms (vermicomposting), you will also be using bacteria. Worms speed things up.

    Bacteria are the unseen inhabitants of whatever materials you include in your compost, but more diverse the ingredients that you add to your compost pile, the more likely you are to have a healthy balance of bacteria. To get a compost pile started, some people will sprinkle a coating of good topsoil or finished compost (from another batch) over each layer of materials they add. I'm not quite so organized, but I add some in every now and then.

    With a large compost pile, as I have, it is possible to create conditions in the center of the pile where the action of composting will heat up the material enough that it will continue composting in the middle throughout a Maine winter. Otherwise, bacteria becomes dormant when temperatures drop below 55 degrees Fahrenheit. My new pile, pictured here, was started too late in the season, so it is unlikely to do much over the winter, other than breaking down due to moisture and the fluctuations of temperature. That's okay though, because I have another active pile, and this one will kick in as soon as spring comes.

    I use worms in my compost. The first few years that I composted, the worms that I had were volunteers who simply found their way into my compost pile. Last spring, however, I bought a few batches of red worms to add to my active compost pile, not the new one, since I hadn't built that one yet. When the ice and snow melted in the spring, my compost pile was so high that I had trouble dumping new stuff onto it so I decided to bring in some reinforcements.

    That really helped. Although I was dumping new stuff onto that pile throughout the spring and summer, it kept getting smaller. That's what I will do with my new pile in the spring. One thing to keep in mind though, when adding worms to an active pile is that they can't survive the heat in the center of the pile, so I dumped the red worms away from the center, and toward the edges of the pile.

    My new compost pile is the only one with a foundation, but I expect that I'll still get volunteers coming in from the sides, as the foundation isn't raised up far from ground level. I'll be introducing worms, too.

    With a large compost pile, as I have, the center of the pile is being composted largely through aerobic and bacterial actions. Although you can compost anaerobically, it takes a long time. Since I am too lazy to turn my piles over as most people do, I create air pockets in the pile by introducing closed cardboard boxes and such, which will compost at a much slower pace than the stuff inside and around them. This works very well.

    The edges of the pile are being composted largely by worms, although bacteria is active there as well, as long as it's not too cold. In the winter, the cold weather will drive the worms more to the center of the pile, where there is some warmth from bacterial action, so they will help to compost that part of the pile. When everything goes well, composting continues throughout the winter.

    City gardeners won't want a large pile of composting garbage in their back yard, so they may use other methods, such as rotating compost cylinders or tumblers.
     
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  18. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Veteran Member
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  19. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Veteran Member
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    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]
    Since winter has held off here this year, it looks like this pile might actually begin composting before it gets too cold for it to do so. More from dampening and crushing than anything else, but the pile is not much higher than it was a month ago, and all of our compostables have gone into it during this time.
     
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  20. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Veteran Member
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    [​IMG]
    Since most of the snow if gone, I was able to add another layer of leaves.

    [​IMG]
     
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    Last edited: Dec 25, 2015
  21. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Veteran Member
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  22. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Veteran Member
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    Unless we can get at least one more melt, it looks like I'm going to have to resort to my older compost pile for this winter. A lot of my new one is filled with snow and ice, and I fear that I built it too late in the season for any composting to be going on in the cold weather that we now have. That's kind of what I expected, so it's not a big deal, but when winter was so slow in getting here, I thought maybe I'd have a working compost pile for the winter. As opposed to the wooden sides of my old compost, the wire sides will aid the compost process in warmer weather but it might be keeping things too cool for it to continue through the winter. Next winter, there will be enough active compost there that it'll continue, however.
     
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  23. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Veteran Member
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    After 24 hours of rain, a great deal of our snow is gone. Eventually, as the boxes become saturated, they will begin to crush, giving me more room in the compost bin. There may be some composting going on inside of the boxes, each of which are filled, or at least partially filled, with compostable materials, but probably not a lot, given the cool temperatures. However, once spring comes, it will compost quickly.

    [​IMG]
     
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  24. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Veteran Member
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    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]

    This one might fit the remainder of my compostables for the winter but, by spring, it is going to be pretty high. Once the fear of frost and freezing is over, I'll buy some worms to help things along. Probably, I'll get some red wigglers, because they feed primarily on the organic material that I am trying to compost. Red wrigglers do not burrow, however; they move laterally within the first few inches of the compost pile. Of course, where I have created pathways with boxes and the like, they will move further into the pile. They are the best kind of worm for composting because of their eating habits, and because they reproduce quickly and can live from two to five years.

    I'll probably also get some European nightcrawlers, which are larger, burrows more deeply, and can remain active throughout a Maine winter. They may not have survived this winter because there wasn't enough stuff in there, but next winter they should do well.

    Pretty much anything that will eat the stuff that you want to compost will play a part in the composting process. It's just that some of them, such as raccoons and rodents may not be desirable for other reasons. With this pile, I haven't had much of a problem with them but my last pile had raccoons in it, as well as stray cats. Although they could certainly get into this one, I think it's just not quite as convenient.

    However, there will be a lot of other things that are actively working in the compost process, including mites, millipedes, centipedes, sow bugs, snails, slugs, spiders, ants, flies, and various kinds of beetles.

    Those are just the critters. Apart from them are the invisible things that are at work, such as bacteria, actinomycetes, protozoa, and fungi, some of which may be quite prominent in the compost. In order to speed things along during the summer, I cover my compost pile with a tarp for a week or so. When I uncover it, there will be fungus all over the top of it, but it mostly disappears within a few hours after the tarp is removed.

    Light, temperatures, moisture, and air all play a part too. Although all of these things are not necessary for a successful compost, they can all play a part.
     
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    Last edited: Jan 20, 2016
  25. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Veteran Member
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    There are a lot of different ways to compost. Someone who lives in a city probably wouldn't want to use their patio in order to build a compost pile like mine and, in most places, they would probably be in violation of city codes or, in the very list, they'd have neighbors upset with them. For composting in a city, there are several commercial composters available, as well as plans for those who want to make their own. In looking at the various ways of making compost, it become clear that people need to ask themselves if their purpose is to create compost as a product that they need, or if they are mostly interested in a more sensible way of disposing of waste products that they already have.

    Some of the methods that I come across discuss compostable materials as ingredients that will have to be obtained in order to create compost. For me, if all I wanted was the compost, I'd simply buy compost and save the space that it uses up in my yard. No, while I certainly have a use for the compost, my main interest is in a sensible way of disposing of compostable wastes that I would have anyhow. I'm not going to go out and buy compostable ingredients, but I will spend a reasonable amount of money on the things that can help me more efficiently compost the stuff that I would already have, such as the materials that went into creating the compost bin and some composting worms in the spring. Other than that, I might add a little bit of peat moss to the pile once in a while, but only if I have some left over from another project.

    Here's a way of composting that doesn't require a lot of space, although it does require a few ingredients.

    Compost in a Bag

    This method of composting can be used to compost kitchen wastes into fertilizer that can be used for houseplants, but it won't create a large volume of compost.

    Start with a medium-sized plastic bag and an twist tie, or a watertight, self-sealing bag.

    Place a cup of shredded organic material in the bag. Things that might work include coffee grounds, tea leaves, fruit peels, leaves, grass clippings, apple cores without seeds, carrot or potato peels, wood ashes, or any organic material that you might otherwise discard in the trash. The more finely you can chop these items up, the shorter the composting time.

    Add a cup of garden soil. Don't use sterile potting soil because that is missing the necessary living microorganisms that will do the composting work. Well-composed leaf mold or finished compost can be used here, as well.

    Add one tablespoon of alfalfa meal or alfalfa pellets, such as might be found in certain types of cat box filler or rabbit or hamster foods.

    Add an ounce of water, then seal the bag. Shake the bag to mix the contents. Squeeze the bag once or twice a day in order to mix the compost. This serves the same purpose as turning a compost pile.

    Every other day, leave the bag open for the day in order to let air in. Compostable materials will compost anaerobically but it takes a lot longer and might smell bad, so its best to let air in every other day. Close the bag up at night, and for the following day. If the contents of the bag smell bad, it might be too wet or in need of more mixing. Otherwise, the compost should be finished in a month or a month and a half as long as the temperatures are 50 degrees or above. In temperatures below fifty degrees but above freezing, composting may take longer. Below freezing, the compost process will stop until the temperatures rise.
     
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