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How to Compost

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Gardening is one of those fun activities for the whole family! You don’t need a green thumb to have your own garden, especially if you grow lettuce, herbs, potatoes, radishes, beans, cucumbers, and tomatoes. Those are some of the easiest vegetables to grown, green thumb or not. My favorite part about it all is connecting with nature. Call me a kid at heart, but I truly enjoy digging in the dirt and picking the weeds! It’s one of the best was for me to unwind and relax, plus the kids absolutely love watching everything grow. The picture above is from my spring garden last year. Our lettuce went crazy last spring and we had a constant supply of home grown leafy greens (as you can see from the picture above). It was my best garden yet! Every gardener knows that a good crop starts with good soil, and there’s no better way to boost your soil than to start composting!

“What you take from the earth, you must give back. That’s nature’s way.” – Chris d’Lacey, The Fire Within

Last year a sweet friend of mine (who by the way has a serious green thumb) showed me her tricks for composting at home. I always thought composting was so complicated so I never gave it a try. Do I put leaves on top or grass? How often do I have to turn the pile? What about carbon and nitrogen – I know there’s a proper way to place all those veggies and leaves? I had too many questions, but my friend taught me that with very little effort (seriously very little effort), anyone can turn “garbage” into a rich soil conditioner. That’s essentially what compost is – nutrients to condition the soil – and there’s no better way to do that than to save your food scraps!

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Most avid composters and green-thumb individuals will tell you that the one rule of thumb that is important to keep in mind for creating a super rich soil is to mix the greens (food scraps & grass clippings) with the browns (dry leaves). The greens are nitrogen-rich and the browns are carbon-rich, and together they make a perfectly beautiful conditioner for your soil. As with anything in this world, balance is the true key ingredient! Too much of a good thing is still too much. Well, for me, there was just one slight problem – I have mostly greens (food scraps)! We do have a backyard with a lot of leaves and plants, but we also have a gardener who cleans it all up every week, so in order to get around this, my friend suggested mixing my food scraps with an organic potting mix. The food scraps of course are the “greens” and the soil acts as the “browns” – it’s a genius idea and my friend has the most amazing garden in her backyard, so I know her method works!

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That day I went out and bought one of those nice orange Home Depot 5-gallon buckets with a lid and a bag of Dr. Earth Organic Planting Mix. Just like they say at Home Depot, I was thinking – “Let’s Do This.” I was so excited to get started, and I had been saving my juice pulp and food scraps for the past week, so I had plenty of “garbage” to start composting. I also had a little helper who loves to dig in the dirt with me. Boys are the best!

To start your bucket composting method, you will need two things – a bucket and a bag of potting soil. That’s it! It’s really that easy!

Bucket Composting Method:
Step 1: At the bottom of your bucket, put a nice layer of the organic potting mix – about 3 inches or so will be fine.
Step 2: Add in your food scraps. You will want to add enough to cover another layer in your bucket.
Step 3: Add in another layer of potting soil just enough to cover up the scraps.
Step 4: Continue to do this until the bucket is full. Your last layer should be potting soil.
Step 5: Once your bucket is full, stir the soil to aerate and mix everything together. The soil will be a beautiful and dark, almost black in color. You can mix it into your garden bed or throughout your yard where you need it. It’s best to wait at least a week for that last layer to decompose before you mix.
Step 6: Use your potting soil in your garden beds, raised beds, or if you are generous you can share with your neighbors, then start the process over again and keep filling up your bucket!

Should You Use A Lid On The Bucket?
There are quite a few composting buckets that you can purchase online. They look fancy, they cost a lot of money, and they are completely unnecessary, however, they are typically enclosed with a lid. The Home Depot Bucket also comes with a lid, but you don’t need to use it, the food will break down on it’s own. You do, however, need to make sure the compost pile stays moist. If you know you are going to fill up a 5-gallon bucket quickly with scraps, you might want to consider using the lid. You will need to poke a few holes in the lid to let the air circulate. Simply take a large drill bit and start making holes – you shouldn’t need more than 6 holes altogether. Then gently rest the lid on top. DO NOT press down on the lid and seal the bucket, it will be a pain to get it off every time! The first time I tried this method, I left the lid off because it was winter and the air was moist enough. My compost turned out perfectly, so the lid is not necessary. In the summer I will probably put the lid on if it gets too hot. The lid serves only one purpose – to keep the soil moist so the food will break down faster. It’s up to you if you want to use it or not.

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How Much Time Does Composting Take?
The best compost is cured, which means you have to let it sit and mature for a few months. As soon as the compost is broken down (depending on your food scraps this could be about 4-6 weeks), it’s usable and you can add it to your garden bed, however if you let the compost sit for a longer period of time, the microorganisms will only enhance your soil once you add it into your garden. If you have patience, I would let it sit as long as you can. Just to give you an idea, my first compost bucket took about 8 weeks total to fill up.

Now that I know how easy composting is, I save most of my food scraps – carrot shreds, banana peels, stems and leaves in a bowl on my countertop – it all goes back into the bucket and eventually back into the earth. Keep in mind that the smaller your food scraps are, the sooner they will break down and decompose. Juice pulp doesn’t take as long as a banana peel or carrot tops, but just keep adding the food to your bucket and I promise you, once that bucket is full and ready to use, you will be amazed!

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Composting also makes a wonderful science lesson for the kids, especially with Earth Day coming up! You can easily create an indoor mini-compost pile using a 2-liter bottle, some organic food waste and a few garden clippings.

Create a mini-compost pile using these tools:
1-2 clear and clean two-liter bottles (cut off the tops of the bottles to get a wider opening)
One sandwich bag full of organic food waste like vegetable peels, fruit peels, seeds, coffee grounds and filters, and other food scraps
One sandwich bag full of organic garden waste like grass clippings, wood chips, straw, leaves, weeds, paper, and other garden wastes
1 gallon of organic soil

The clear two-liter bottles provide a powerful visual for children to actually see the organic matter breaking down and composting! You can even do a side by side comparison where they can visualize biodegradable and non-biodegradable resources in nature. Just use with 2 separate 2-liter bottles – one with the organic matter and one with non biodegradable items like styrofoam, foil or hard plastic pieces.

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I hope you all feel encouraged and a little more at ease when it comes to composting now. I know for me, this simple method has changed the way I think about the whole process, and hopefully for you too. Just remember, there is no wrong way to compost! You just need some scraps, soil, and a bucket! If you have a larger yard with an area that that you can compost without a bucket, you can compost even more just as you would using the bucket method! Just throw your food scraps into the pile, then top it with some of the organic soil.

For a more detailed guide to composting, check out these tips from Organic Gardening and Mother Earth News.

Tammi is a vegan wife and stay at home mother of 3 children living in Laguna Niguel. She is an environmental advocate and volunteer for Food & Water Watch, an avid recipe tester, and passionate about organic living. When she’s not cooking or blogging, she’s driving her kids around to karate, tennis, youth group, swimming, drama club or Kumon. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at GMO Free Girl.
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