Who Knew Composting Is So Important? (Whether You Garden or Not.)
We always thought of composting as the dominion of hard-core gardeners—while we’re big proponents of eating locally-grown, organic produce, we’re more inclined to buy it at the farmer’s market than build the raised beds ourselves. But then we learned that when food scraps and lawn clippings—ideal compost fodder—end up in landfills and decompose without access to oxygen, they release methane gas, which is many times more potent than carbon dioxide, and decided we needed to learn a bit more about how to make composting happen at home. Below, L.A. Compost founder and grassroots activist Michael Martinez expounds on the miracle of closing the food-to-table-to-soil gap and how composting can be quick, easy, and smell-free. Prep the coffee grinds.
A Q&A with Michael Martinez
What is composting?
Composting is the process of giving life back to your soil using organic materials. In a forest, this process happens naturally. Trees drop their leaves, shrubs wither away, seeds break down, and these materials then naturally decompose, becoming part of the soil they came from and delivering nutrients that made up their bodies back to the earth. In an urban setting, it’s possible to recreate that process using food and yard waste (it’s a bit like baking with specific ingredients). With the right ingredients and the right environment, your compost system will create a finished product that is extremely valuable.
Why is it so valuable?
The soil under your feet (what you’d find if you went for a hike near your house) is made from all kinds of minerals and other materials, and depending on your location, it will differ in quality and texture. In Los Angeles, there are loamy soils, and there are heavy clay soils. Not many soils are naturally high in organic matter (which is needed to grow food). Compost is made entirely from organic matter, which means it’s filled with minerals and nutrients that are ideal for growing food. Compost is way more valuable than regular soil in many ways.
Compost acts as a natural sponge, storing water and holding moisture in the soil for plants to use when needed. When it rains, water that falls on land covered in compost can actually soak into the soil, rather than washing off into the storm drains. That means that plants can draw on water (and thereby, nutrients) even days after a storm, reducing our need to water and use commercial fertilizer.
Healthy soil removes excess carbon from the air and stores it in the ground (that carbon then becomes part of trees and other plants that grow out of that soil). Depleted soil, which has less organic material, doesn’t have the ability to absorb carbon. Our buddies at Kiss the Ground just released a great video explaining how different agricultural methods that rely heavily on compost could make a big difference in the fight to stop global warming.
Keeping food and plant waste out of landfills is essential. When food sits in landfills and isn’t exposed to oxygen, or provided with the proper materials for decomposition, it releases methane gas (more potent green house gas than Co2) into the air. Making food waste part of the solution to climate change as opposed to part of the problem is an enormous benefit to composting. We already have a huge problem with waste but when 1/3 of materials being sent to landfills are food products it’s a bit embarrassing. Composting eliminates any need to send organic materials to landfills to rot away, and re-purposes them to sustain life.
This is the obvious one—you can’t go into the Santa Monica wilderness, clear a plot of land, and grow beautiful vegetables without adding a lot of fertilizer. Compost is a natural and crazy-effective fertilizer that provides your garden with all of the materials it needs to grow beautiful vegetables. We all eat, and we prefer when our food is both healthy and grown without synthetic fertilizers. Healthy soil=healthy food, healthy food=healthy people.
What are the components to make good compost?
Compost has two main ingredients: green material and brown material. You’ll also need oxygen and water to create the perfect environment for breaking those materials down.
- Grass Clippings
- Green Leaves
- Tea Leaves & Bags
- Coffee Grounds
- Fruit & Vegetable Scraps
- Plant Prunings (Avoid Diseased Plants)
- Crushed Eggshells
- Pulp From Pressed Juice!
- Dry Leaves
- Dry Grass
- Straw & Hay
- Shredded Paper
- Wood shavings
Greens: Provide protein and moisture for organisms. To start off your pile it’s safe to add the same amount of brown material as you do green.
Browns: Allow airflow throughout the pile and provide energy for organisms.
Oxygen: Allows organisms to survive while keeping the pile odor-free. This is why you need to turn your pile—if the materials aren’t exposed to the air, they’ll start decomposing anaerobically, which smells terrible and doesn’t make for good compost.
Water: Moisture allows organisms to move around and digest material. When you have the right amount of water, your pile will be the same consistency as a wrung-out towel or sponge.
What sort of bugs does decaying food attract? And what should be kept out of a bin? Doesn’t it start to smell?
When you compost correctly, it won’t smell. Unwanted odors are typically a sign of a bin that hasn’t been turned or a bin that has way more “greens” than it does browns.
Although meat, bones, dairy, and breads can be composted on a large scale (see below about city composting), it’s best to keep these items out of backyard compost bins. These are the items that typically attract unwanted vermin and odors.
Bugs in a compost pile are completely natural—the bugs (yes, that means worms) and much smaller organisms that you can’t see with your eyes are the ones you can thank for actually doing the work to break down the material. If you have too many fruit flies, it typically means your compost pile is too wet. To solve that problem, you can aerate the pile by mixing the ingredients, and add some more brown material. Another good way to prevent fruit flies is to cover green material with brown material every time you add them to the pile.
Is homegrown compost better than store-bought?
When you make your compost at home, you know exactly what goes into it—which is valuable, particularly if you’re growing organic vegetables. It’s a thing of beauty when you grow your food, eat your food, and compost it all at home.
Compost is alive and teeming with microorganisms that can only be seen under a microscope. The life in the soil allows the plants in your garden to thrive. Store-bought compost is wrapped in plastic, packed in a truck, and delivered from hours away; all of those processes kill microorganisms. Although the store-bought version can still be valuable for some purposes (how do you think you got good enough soil in your backyard for your lawn to grow?), it does not possess the same amount of life as homemade compost, and it lacks the other positive side effects, like keeping food and yard waste out of landfills.
Is vermiculture a good option if you don’t have a lot of access to falling leaves and other “browns”?
Composting with worms, also called vermicomposting, uses a slightly different method than traditional composting, but can be just as effective in the right environment. Because you’re relying on efficient and fast-moving worms more than the other microorganisms in the soil, vermiculture also works much more quickly than traditional compost. If you don’t have much space or access to any “browns,” worms might actually be your best option.
The first thing to remember is that compost worms have no eyes, teeth, or noses, so there’s no need to be frightened. Worms also tend to thrive in dark, moist conditions in temperatures under 80 degrees, which means they aren’t going to escape your compost bin and go wriggling around the garage or back porch. It also means you’ll want to keep a compost bin with worms in a cool, shaded environment and have a top on it at all times.
Unlike traditional bins where you’re placing equal parts of brown and green material in your compost, you only have to place food or vegetable scraps in a worm bin. Worms eat and process close to their body weight in food scraps per day. So, if a family of four produces 2 pounds of food scraps from their daily meals, two pounds of worms would be able to break down the material into beautiful worm castings within a day. When the material enters the body of the worm, it passes through several process that support plant growth. Worm castings, or worm poop, are like a magic potion for your garden. You can either dress your garden directly with worm castings or use them to brew compost tea, which is a natural (and unbelievably effective) fertilizer.
So what’s the deal with compost tea?
Making compost tea is essentially multiplying the biology that is found within your finished compost. In the same way you steep a teabag while brewing a cup of tea, you can place a bag of compost in a bucket of water, then aerate it either with a pump or simply by stirring over a period of time. The finished product is liquid compost that can be sprayed directly on leaves, or at the base of existing plants and acts like a natural fertilizer to support plant growth.
What if you live in an apartment, or don’t really have the space or inclination to compost but still want to help?
Many cities have systems where they offer composting via curbside pickup. Municipal composts are also enormous, which means they can often process dairy, meat, and bones. Use of finished municipal compost varies greatly depending on what city you live in, so accessing the “building healthy soil” part is where things get a little complicated. But it’s generally a great solution, particularly for people who don’t garden.
If your city doesn’t have a municipal system in place, you’re not off the hook. Check to see if you can drop off your food and yard scraps to a local community garden or community compost hub (pro-tip: keep your food scraps in a paper grocery bag in the freezer until you can drop them off to keep them from stinking). Some cities even have pick-up services for this kind of local effort. Community composting is gaining steam all throughout the country, and within a few years I’d imagine every state having multiple composting options. Here are a few community composters at the moment: LA Compost, Kiss the Ground, FarmBox LA, Gainesville Compost, Compost Pedallers, Carter’s Compost.
If you do want to do it at home, what’s the best way to start?
First, determine how much space you have and how much brown and green material you generate. Then, purchase a compost bin, make your own, or see if your city provides them for free. Establish the right environment and appetite for your system and begin to add your inputs throughout the week. All organic material will eventually break down with or without you, but giving a little attention to your compost system can go a long way to keep things from getting gross and to ensure that you have a product you can use in your (or your neighbor’s, or your community’s) garden at the end.
These are all great resources for getting started: Home Composting Made Easy, Compost Junkie, The Compost Gardener, L.A. Compost Guide.
Low Soil Tolerance:
Drop-offs as part of your municipal system or at a community hub might be your best bet. (See above.)
Medium Soil Tolerance:
Backyard compost in a tumbler or other enclosed system.
Composting in your own backyard is a beautiful process. There are so many effective systems available that you can use one, or several depending on your needs—just create the right environment and add the right mix of browns and greens. Systems that allow for easy removal of finished materials are beneficial in the long run. Also keep in mind that even if you’re not a gardener, you might still benefit from composting. It’s a hugely educational process for kids, and good compost you can’t use on your landscaping will be (gratefully) accepted by local community gardens. This is a good resource for types of bins and tumblers.
High Soil Tolerance:
Vermiculture, i.e., composting with worms, is your best bet. Worm composting is easier than most people imagine (no, the worms, do not escape from their bins). Plus, worms take care of the work for you buy breaking down the materials rather quickly. Instead of turning the entire pile with a pitchfork or shovel, worms move all around the bin to ensure that all food that you placed in the bin has been consumed. Once you establish bedding made of coir, newspaper, or cardboard, the worms will take a few days to establish themselves in their new home. After they’re comfortable in their new environment, you can start (slowly at first) feeding them food scraps. In a few days, you should have some beautiful worm castings (a.k.a. garden gold) ready for harvesting. To harvest the castings without taking all of your worms with you, move all of the castings over to one side of your bin and fill the other side with a fresh batch of moistened, shredded newspaper and cardboard. The worms will naturally migrate over, leaving the fresh compost ready and worm-free for harvesting. For more information on worm composting, visit Compost Junkie.