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Ask Eartha Steward

EARTHA STEWARDhigh country conservation centerSummit County, CO Colorado

As it is Compost Awareness Week, I thought that I would take the opportunity to talk about one of my favorite subjects. Composting is such a happy chore that I am still amazed that more people don’t choose to do it. The problem, I think, is that there is a lot of intimidation associated with composting. People are unsettled by the idea of attracting animals to their compost. People are overwhelmed by carbon to nitrogen ratios. And last but not least, people are concerned about their compost bin freezing. These are all valid concerns. It is our duty to compost correctly so that bears do not get into our bins, become habituated and have to be destroyed. I argue, though, that if you compost correctly, by considering bin placement, the amount of “green” to “brown” material, maintain the proper moisture level, and mix regularly, bears, fox, and others will pass up your compost bin for your non-composting neighbors trash can. And, of course, you should never add bones, meats, fats or dairy products to your bin as bears will certainly come from far and wide to dine in your bin. Delving into carbon to nitrogen ratios can be quite interesting to those with a scientific mind. I personally have more interest in the art of composting. My point? You can compost efficiently with a basic knowledge of carbon (a.k.a., “brown”) and nitrogen (a.k.a., “green”) materials. You need to understand that (by volume) you want to have an equal amount of green to brown materials. You may read that you want about a 30-to-1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen, but you must take into account the varying ratios within each item and it can get quite technical. Typically if you have an equal amount of paper products to kitchen scraps then you are all set. Frozen compost is inactive compost. But inactive means dormant not dead. I have a compost pile that I allow to freeze each winter. When organic material freezes, ice crystals form and the thawing of the material causes the cell walls to break (picture the mushiness of a frozen strawberry that has thawed); this gives the decomposition process a jump start. I am amazed each spring, when my pile thaws, at the amount of finished compost that has already been created. I partially allow this freezing to occur so that I can witness this amazing process in overdrive. But I admit that I mostly let it freeze because I am lazy … and there is room for idleness in composting, particularly when it is twenty below and the wind is howling. If you still despise the idea of allowing the pile to freeze, there are simple ways to prevent it, such as insulating the sides with straw bales, mixing it frequently and adding “hot” materials such as fruit pulp and horse manure. When I look through an exhaustive list of composting benefits, I have to wonder what problem compost can’t solve. Compost can: eliminate erosion, soil caking, cracking, splattering and compaction; reduce drought; mitigate heavy metals; suppress plant diseases and pests; fertilize naturally; stabilize soil temperatures; recycle organic wastes rather than landfill them; and combat climate change. Yes you read that right … compost can combat climate change. Compost stores carbon within the soil, not allowing it to be released into the atmosphere where it contributes to global warming. Additionally, compost generates significantly less methane than landfills. Compost works by way of aerobic decomposition, which is just a fancy way of saying that during decomposition oxygen is present, whereas landfills by nature utilize anaerobic (without air) decomposition. In the absence of oxygen, decomposing organic material creates methane which is 21 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. And landfills are the number one human caused contribution to methane production. It is important to note that 62 percent of the material in a landfill is compostable, or it was before it got there. Sometimes the answers to our most concerning questions have already been answered in nature. We just have to look. Compost is certainly one of nature’s answers, so I encourage you to compost. Or at least learn more about it. As Mary Appelhof, a world renowned worm composting expert, so eloquently put it: “It’s taken the earth and its organisms billions of years to learn how to make things work. Learning’s a process. It takes successes and it takes failures. As we learn from each other, let’s also learn from the organisms that have truly learned how to recycle and make resources available to everyone.” To learn more about how to compost efficiently in our particular climate, I encourage you to join me in the Master Mountain Composter program. It will begin on Monday (May 14th) at 5 p.m. You can still apply to become a certified Master Mountain Composter and attend all six classes for just $35 or you can drop in on a class that interests you for $10. For more information or to reserve a spot in Monday’s class call 668-5703 or email holly@highcountryconservation.org Eartha Steward is written by Carly Wier, Holly Loff, and Beth Orstad, consultants on all things eco and chic at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation in our mountain community. Eartha believes that you can walk gently on our planet, even if you’re wearing stylie shoes.Submit questions to Eartha at eartha@highcountryconservation.org or to High Country Conservation Center, P.O. Box 4506, Frisco, CO 80443.


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