Ask Eartha: Climbing the composting pile, even in the coldest of climates
Ryan Summerlin April 3, 2013
I read about your Master Mountain Composter program. Is backyard composting even possible at our elevation?
– Jennelle, Silverthorne
Yes! Compost happens even in the High Country! It occurs naturally in our surrounding forests and also in our backyards with a little bit of elbow grease and warm weather. Composting is essentially the process of farming beneficial microbes. That’s right! You provide the shelter, food, water and air to millions of tiny creatures that in return, give you compost.
Keeping your pet microbes healthy and happy is the key to a successful compost bin. So what exactly do they need to work their magic? First of all, the foundation of any compost pile is sustenance (also known as “feedstocks”). You’ve got your nitrogen (“the greens”) which acts as the protein for the bugs and you’ve also got your carbon (“the browns”) which provide the energy and food. You need both for your population of microbes to survive. Even though the rule of thumb for composting is a carbon to nitrogen ration of 30:1, there’s actually a scientific formula for these ratios for every living thing.
I like to tell people that composters are either artists or scientists (sometimes a little bit of both). Some compost enthusiasts throw their masterpiece together in no particular order, creating piles of disorder built on paper egg cartons and shells, buckets of food waste, a pinch of sawdust and a heaping armful of dead leaves. Every addition is a different recipe with no calculation or thought. These artists may actively create compost in a matter of weeks or passively in two years.
The compost scientists systematically calculate everything they add; layer nitrogen and carbon to the square inch; and try to meet the 30:1 rule as if their life depended on it. They may create recipes and models for other composters to use. They may create the most nutritious soil known to mankind. Or they may fail miserably. We are talking about controlling nature, which can be a little unpredictable.
A happy medium of compost artist and compost scientist will leave you with about a 50:50 mix of greens and browns. Your greens may include fruit scraps, grass clippings, chicken manure, coffee grounds and dog hair. Your browns can be a mix of seed-free straw, dryer lint and paper towels. Once you have the microbes’ food in order, you can layer or mix away. It’s nice to have a bin (wood, plastic, tumbler, hand-built …) to contain the pile. It helps combat the wind and dry factor that threatens every Colorado compost heap.
The next steps take us back to the microbes – your pets. What does every living creature need to survive? You got it – food (check!), shelter (check!), water and air. Air is pretty easy. All compost bins, whether purchased or produced, need air holes. Most often, there is too much ventilation which supports a very dry environment. So, consider using insulation or tarps to control air flow and wind.
Two other things can affect air flow – surface area of the feedstocks and mixing. Chopping the feedstocks can help your creatures quickly break down food particles into soil. However, over-chopping can foster compaction which eliminates air flow and causes the “trash” smell. Diversify your feedstocks by keeping a range of sizes (big and small).
Mixing is important for both air flow and moisture control. I like to water my compost bin like I water my garden. The microbes need the moisture to survive. Once your soil is dry, the microbes die off or scatter. When you add water, be sure to mix so the moisture is transferred throughout the pile. Remember not to over mix (more than every three days) or you’ll drive your microbes crazy and they’ll never get anything done.
I’ll be honest, unless you are actively composting and adding hot ingredients to your bin, it will take at least a couple months to get a finished product. If you are a lazy composter (like myself), compost can take years. If you don’t think you’re up to the challenge, there is a residential compost drop-off program at the Frisco Recycling Center. You can sign up for as little as $10 a month and compost bones, dairy and meat products, which are not recommended for backyard programs.
For those that want to learn more about composting such as hot composting, vermiculture (worms!), composting in bear country and winter composting, sign up for the Master Mountain Composter program. MMC starts April 16 through April 25, Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5:30-7 p.m. at Colorado Mountain College in Breckenridge. Drop-ins are welcome to attend for $20 a class. Please RSVP. For more info, visit www.highcountryconservation.org.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff
at the High Country Conservation Center, a
nonprofit organization dedicated to waste
reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at eartha@highcountry