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Q. Dear Mike: We have been trying to compost for years and haven't been very successful at it. Our first pile was an open wire bin we threw garden waste into—and when it was cold outside hid our kitchen waste in the middle so the neighbors wouldn't howl. After 10 years, we still didn't have any compost in the bottom. Now we have a tumbler I toss kitchen waste, yard waste and garden excess into. We've been using compost activators but the result after about 15 weeks is black, clumpy, moist stuff. What are we doing wrong? Should we add more leaves? Spin the tumbler more often?
---Jim & Betty in Mahomet, IL
Mike: I listen to you Saturday afternoons here on our local NPR station. I really enjoy your program and the obvious care you put into it. You and "Wait, Wait…" are the best radio of the week! Now, could you please refer me to a good source of composing information? I don't do as much as I could; partly because our property has lots of shade trees and partly because I don't know as much as I should. Keep up the good work,
---James in Northern Michigan
Q. Jim and Betty—yours sounds like the most basic mistake in composting; way too much 'green material' and not nearly enough brown.A lot of people are sold on composting as something that will recycle their kitchen garbage alone into garden gold; but that's just not the case. Fall leaves are the backbone of a composting system.
Shred up any amount of fall leaves alone, put them in a container or just pile them up, and they will pretty quickly become compost. Mix in small amounts of "wet greens"—kitchen garbage, pulled weeds, frosted tamata plants and similar stuff—and you will also get good compost, maybe even of a slightly better quality.
If the green material is well shredded and in the right proportion—about one part green for every four parts shredded leaf or other 'dry brown' (carbon-rich) material, the resulting compost will definitely be of better quality and even cook up a little faster than the 'leaf me alone' variety. Make it a 'hot' source of nitrogen, like coffee grounds or barnyard manure, and it will cook up faster and be of very high finished quality.
But alas, as many composters have sadly learned, piling up your kitchen garbage simply creates a pile of…well, kitchen garbage. Like we warn every Fall, you can compost leaves all by themselves and get good compost. You cannot compost green waste all by its lonesome and get good compost. (I was going to say that you can turn your kitchen waste alone into fabulous plant food via "vermiculture"—using a worm bin to make it happen—but in truth, those bins also require the use ofa carbon-rich material in the form of bedding.)
To avoid another very common error, compost should always be made 'batch style'. That means thoroughly mixing up your four parts shredded leaves and one part green waste in a pile, bin, stationary unit or tumbler and then leaving it alone until its done.
Because the raw ingredients shrink down during the process, compost rookies are always tempted to keep adding material to their piles. Don't do this! If you keep adding green waste, it upsets the balance and stops the process cold. This is especially true with tumblers, which are often referred to as 'batch' composters, because they really need to be filled, turned till they're done, emptied, and then re-filled with a fresh load of raw ingredients. If you don't want to store your garbage in a trashcan till that time arrives, you'll need two or three composters. That way, your vegetative excess can always go into the one most recently emptied. Line them up in a row—it looks really cool!
And sorry, but those compost starters and activators can't force a bad load to do what it otherwise wouldn't—and a well-balanced load doesn't need them. At least it doesn't need them at the beginning. Research has found these products to often be very helpful at the end. That's right—although few say so on the label, the best time for these condensed creams of lil' organisms to be let loose in your compost is AFTER the process is over; to give more life to loads that may have set cold for a spell, or whose organisms may have died off in large numbers during an otherwise especially excellent 'cooking' process.
Speaking of cold, only experienced composters can keep compost cooking over the winter in the North. I can teach you some tricks to get around this, but recommend patience instead—especially for newbies. That hibernating compost will start cooking again—very quickly in fact—when the weather warms up. (Unless it's all garbage, of course—then it'll stay asleep.)
And "Michigan Jim": You got trees, fella—that's not a bad thing! It means you got lots of leaves with which to make lots of compost! And you will soon have that (somewhat) ultimate composting reference you crave to consult—I just finished a big book on composting that's scheduled to be published by Sterling this fall. So hang in there, true believers—Captain Compost is on the way!
Oh, and those of you who didn't hoard leaves last fall but still want to make some compost this season can substitute shredded flakes of straw (sounds like a high-fiber breakfast cereal) or the browned-out remains of last year's plants, like the above-ground growth of herbaceous perennials and ornamental grasses. Leftover Halloween and Thanksgiving cornstalks are also great; just be sure and shred them up well.
Sorry, but wood shavings and sawdust won't work.