Turning trash into treasure

Waste is a fact of life. In the kitchen, it doesn’t matter whether you’re slicing a tomato or cutting up a cucumber, peeling an apple or paring a pear, there are leftover skins and seeds to scrap. There are coffee grounds to contend with; eggshells to eliminate; paper towels to pitch.

Then there’s all the debris from yardwork: leaves, grass clippings, brush, weeds that you’ve yanked from the garden. Sometimes it seems like there’s a never-ending stream of stuff headed straight for the garbage can.

But instead of filling up a landfill, why not put all that waste to work? Start a compost heap and turn some of that trash into treasure. It’s easy, interesting, and the payoffs are immense.

Composting works through the magic of Mother Nature. A combination of microrganisms, fungi, and insects work to break down waste material into a dark, crumbly, nutrient-rich soil that’s a perfect, chemical-free growing medium.

There are basically two types of composting: hot and cold. A hot compost heap breaks down material faster, but requires more maintenance, such as frequent turning, balancing of ingredients, and monitoring of its moisture level. A cold heap works more slowly, but requires little work and the end result is the same. A hot heap can produce compost in two months; a cold heap may take up to two years.

For a hot heap, start off with the big stuff: hay, chopped brush, small twigs. That will help air to circulate under the pile. Add a layer of dirt, and, if available, manure (Never use droppings from meat-eating animals, such as dogs and cats. These can carry disease). Then moisten the mix with water and add a sprinkling of lime.

Now it’s time to start adding kitchen scraps. It’s best to stay away from meats, bones and fats. These items can attract rodents and foster disease. Plant-based material, however, is perfect, as are things like egg shells, pasta, coffee grounds, tea bags, napkins, paper towels (as long as they haven’t been used with chemicals), newspaper, fireplace ashes, sawdust and even cardboard such as paper towel and toilet paper rolls. Never use sawdust from pressure-treated wood, and never add plants that have been sprayed with an herbicide.

Add material to the heap, alternating layers of scraps, yard waste, sprinkled lime, soil and manure until you’re happy with its size. (There’s no hard and fast rule about what size works best, though larger piles hold heat better than smaller ones.) Over the next two months, use a shovel or pitchfork to turn it frequently, which will mix the materials together and hasten the decomposition process. In the meantime, you can start a new heap, following the same steps.

The heap will generate heat as bacteria cause the materials to decompose; the interior may reach temperatures as high as 160 degrees Farehnheit. Afterward, fungi, centipedes, millipedes, worms and beetles will start their shifts. When they’re done, that pile of “trash” will smell like earth, and it will be a rich, dark brown or black color and be ready to add to your garden.

The second, and simplest, option is a cold heap. In a cold heap, material is just added to the pile until it’s reached the desired size. Then the pile sits until the composting process is complete. This can take up to two years, but if conditions are right, may take even less time. Turning the heap over is helpful but optional, although some experts say it should be turned at least once. Many gardeners rotate heaps, starting a new one while a previous pile decomposes.

When your compost is finished, it can be added to gardens, flower beds, or even used as a potting medium. It’s free, reduces waste, and eliminates the need for chemical fertilizers. What’s not to love?

Keep in mind that space limitations or local ordinance may require the use a compost bin or tumbler. These are readily available at many garden supply centers, but with a little ingenuity, you can make your own (a 50 gallon trash can, for instance, makes a fine home composter; plans for tumblers can be found all over the Web).

To learn more about composting, check out these helpful links from Organic Gardening, Mother Earth News, and the Penn State Cooperative Extension.