Designer Composting…Seriously?

I read in an article the other day that composting is going high-end. Yep, in some of the more avant-garde regions of the country, composting is becoming so fashionable that it’s being designed right into kitchen décor. Circular insets are being precision-cut right into Carrara marble countertops, through which food scraps are discretely dropped into built-in stainless steel containers with fitted lids.

Somebody’s still got to run the bucket of scraps out to the compost bin, I’m thinking to myself. I try to imagine Jason building an elegant, stacked-stone compost bin with custom lighting next to a client’s outdoor kitchen and end up just shaking my head.

The fact is, there’s nothing fancy or new about composting except that it’s easier, cleaner and more efficient than it used to be. Of course, it’s not as easy, clean and efficient as throwing all the kitchen scraps into the garbage can or down the disposal, which begs the question:  Why compost?

I compost for two reasons. One, I’m a gardener, and I like the idea of creating—from nothing but waste—nutrient-rich, organic, black soil that will help me make my gardens amazing. And two, I like the environmental benefit of keeping all that biodegradable waste out of landfills. Some estimates suggest food scraps and yard waste together account for more than 28 percent of what we throw away! Why not do my part to reduce that?

These are the composting bins I’m using right now.

There are two basic types of composting:  batch and continuous. Mine are for batch composting. Once a bin is filled with biodegradable material, you have a batch. It remains in the bin, without the addition of more material, until it’s “cooked.” The end product is a bin-full of black, nutrient rich soil ready to be used in the garden. The batch method requires commitment and a certain degree of babysitting, but it can produce excellent compost in as little as four to six weeks.

For the continuous method, composting material is collected in a contained area at least 3 X 3 X 3, and continually added to. There’s never a cut-off point for adding new stuff. Because you’re always adding to it, you don’t ever get that entire bin-full of rich, black dirt you’ll get with a batch of cooked-all-at-once compost. Instead, as the organic matter decomposes, the finished product sifts its way to the bottom of the bin, where it can be scooped or shoveled out, a little at a time, for adding to the garden. The continuous method doesn’t require much attention, but it takes a long time to produce nutrient-rich compost.

My dual-bin composter allows me to be collecting and adding material to one bin while I’m cooking a batch in the other. So I’m able to keep a batch going all the time.

There’s a lot to be learned about composting, but the general how-tos are pretty simple. You put the composting material in an enclosed bin or contained area where it will get some sun exposure, spray a little water on it regularly to keep it just moist, and keep it aerated. Depending on the type of composting system you have, you can turn, or rotate the bin to tumble the contents, or turn it over periodically with a shovel or pitchfork.

What’s in the mixture? A mix of so-called greens and browns. Green materials typically include scraps from the kitchen, like fruit and vegetable peelings, cores and seeds; coffee grounds and tea bags; nut hulls and egg shells; as well as green grass clippings, hair, fur and lint.  Brown materials are things like fallen leaves and pine straw; dead grass clippings, wood chips, shredded newspaper, brown paper bags and brown cardboard.

This model has large, rugged hand-holds that make it very easy to turn the bin.

Whatever method you use, it takes time for compost to turn into nutrient-rich material for your gardens, and the winter cold slows the composting process down. So if you’d like to produce some of that black dirt in time for spring planting, now’s the time to get started. As you learn and experiment with composting, be aware that there are a few things you should do differently in the winter than during the rest of the year.

  • Only water your compost pile on warmer days, when temperatures warm up to 40 or 50 degrees.
  • To preserve the warmth on the interior of the pile, which is created by the little microorganisms responsible for the decomposition, don’t aerate it.
  • Since you won’t be turning the pile much, chop materials up into small pieces—less than two- inch bits—to help them decompose faster.
  • Vary the sizes of brown materials you add to your compost in the winter to help create pockets of air.

There are plenty of resources for learning more before you delve into composting. Just search “composting” or “organic composting.” Georgia’s Environmental Protection Agency has a handy tip sheet summarizing the main steps.

Of course, you’ll need to research the options before choosing a system. Ask yourself:  How much time and money do I want to put into it? How long do I want to wait for my “black gold” to be ready to use in my garden? How much space do I have? Do I want to buy a composting bin or make one? I wasn’t that happy with the first one I bought, above, because the legs didn’t feel stable when I was turning it.

Here are some ideas to think about. And a few more examples. There are all kinds of product reviews to help you compare systems. And then you’ll need something to collect your kitchen scraps in, whether it’s a coffee can or a more stylish option.

While I’m not ready to go designer with my composting implements just yet, I have to say there are some composting products out there that would look pretty respectable on any of our high-end patio or deck projects.


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