Thursday, September 29, 2016

Composting For City of Frederick Residents

The City of Frederick is selling compost bins to residents ($21.50). See their press release.  I dropped off my order form on Wednesday afternoon and by Thursday morning a bin was delivered to my door!

As soon as I heard about the bins, I asked Linda Norris to write a post on this subject to help us get started. Linda  provides compost education through The Hungry Redworm,   an environmental education organization. Here is her report.

Linda Norris:  I’ve been composting for 25 years, and use a bin very similar to the one the city is selling. While the idea of composting may be attractive, there are some things you should think about before jumping in. Here are some questions to consider:

How large is your household and property?
While there is no minimum size household to make a compost project work, what you’re generating will determine how successful you are in making compost. To have a compost pile that is large enough to heat up and break down weed seeds and odorous material, you’ll need to build up to 3X4 feet of material in your bin within 3 months. If you are in a small grassy yard that doesn’t produce a lot of scrap organic materials, you will have a hard time building up an active pile unless you have other sources of feedstock.  Feedstock is the material you put  into your compost bin.

Am I an active gardener? What will I do with my finished compost?
Some of us are content to compost because it reduces waste, and are not worried about how soon we have a finished pile. But for those of you who hope to use your compost on your garden and lawn (active composters) you’ll need to put more work, feedstock and time into your pile. Be realistic about what your expectations are to avoid disappointment later.  You’ve thought about it and you're ready to give it a try with the city’s new compost bin. Congratulations!

Where do I put my bin?
I’ve had success with my pile in both sun and shade; sun will heat your pile which is a good thing for ACTIVE composters who want compost more quickly. Do Not put your bin directly  next to your house, wooden fence or other structure; while this style bin encases our materials, the  purpose of the microbes and critters in active compost is to break down organic material. Don’t risk any damage to your wooden structures. Siting it in your back or side yard is recommended for aesthetics; and if you plan to incorporate food scraps, remember that it should not be too far from your kitchen door for a weekly trip to the compost bin to be practical.

Rodents and odors - how to avoid them
Ready to Compost!
This is a good time to introduce this topic;  the bin the city has purchased has a twisting lid, screws to fasten our bin securely to the ground and other features that will help to keep mice, fruit flies and other creatures uninterested in your bin but only if you use them. Follow the assembly instructions for all the flaps and attachments and be sure to keep them closed and the lid on your bin during use to keep unwanted pests from becoming interested in your compost! More on this to come…

Materials to inaugurate your pile
If you are just buying your bin (it is October now), assemble your bin and wait…for the fall leaf drop. This is because successful compost is a green/brown (nitrogen/carbon) balance. For me, three to one ratio in volume is ideal. BUT, do not start only with greens. (For brown/green examples, see the chart in the handbook that comes with your bin). Greens, the nitrogen source, are the “ gasoline” that feeds and breaks down your carbons—but putting only greens in without carbon is just asking for odor problems—so wait to have the proper mix! If you don’t have leaves as a source, you can use straw, or even shredded paper, as a starting carbon source.

Once you have the equivalent of a couple wheelbarrows of leave or other Browns, you are ready for your first addition of greens, which will be addressed below. But, as you add more greens, be sure to keep up exponentially with three times that many “Browns” or you will have an overly nitrogenous pile that will cause odors for you!

Green materials: the nitrogen source for your pile
The no-brainier source of green materials is grass clippings, though you may be getting your bin just as the lawn mowing season is ending. If that's the case, other greens you can begin with are chicken, cow or horse manure (I don not recommend pet manure or litter due to  potential heavy metals in their food, unless you do not plan to use the compost on a vegetable garden); or food scraps. If you are starting your pile in November/December, you can always fill it with leaves/straw for the winter and begin  adding greens when lawn mowing season begins again, if you wish. The carbons will break down slowly but will not have the odor issues that the greens would if they are composted alone.

Food scraps
If you are in a dense, small lot area,  begin using  this source of nitrogen in a small way so as to discover on your own the best balance of Green to brown. Vegetable scraps are a good safety bet to begin with, using primarily the leftovers from your vegetable cook/canning/chopping. Do not add cream or oil soaked vegetables leftover from your meals, whose smell may attract curious pests. Coffee grounds are fine as well (and the filters as well). Once you have integrated vegetables, you can begin to add egg shells, bread crusts,  rinds and other scraps.

Meat, fish, dairy products, cheeses and ones should be avoided in suburban compost piles or those that are not growing sufficiently hot (130 degrees in their early stage) because they will cause odors, draw critters and not break down well with your carbon sources.

There are many, many more nuances to composting, but this should get you started.  In late next spring, I’ll write a column on turning and harvesting your finished compost!
Linda Norris

Good luck!  To contact  Linda Norris-Waldt, email her at

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