We reduce, we reuse, we recycle and still landfills and trash incinerators in Connecticut and across the U.S. are bombarded with more than 167 million TONS of garbage each year. What’s an environmentally responsible Nutmegger to do? Investing in the creation of what Dawn Pettinelli of the UConn Home & Garden Education Center in Storrs likes to call “black gold,” otherwise known as compost, is an excellent place to start.
“Composting is the most basic form of recycling,” says Pettinelli, who manages the center’s Soil Nutrient Analysis Laboratory, and yet it’s estimated that roughly 50 percent of the trash we lug to the curb is compostable, and of that 21 percent is food scraps alone — and that’s from statistics compiled before the coronavirus had us at home cooking more meals per day than ever before.
“Helping take charge of our own trash is part of being a responsible citizen,” Pettinelli says. Not to mention the fact that the nutrient-rich compost we have the potential to create can do “tremendous things,” adds Abigail Maynard of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven. It increases soil fertility and reduces the need for chemical fertilizers, can hold up to five times its weight in water and thus significantly reduce stormwater runoff, filters pollutants, sequesters carbon, suppresses diseases and … need we go on? “It’s a natural phenomenon,” Maynard sums up.
So, think you might be ready to turn some of your own trash into “treasure”? The good news is that “it’s not nearly as complicated as people think,” Maynard says. Let’s get you started.
First things first: Who’s in charge here?
When you come right down to it, “a compost pile is really a teeming microbial farm,” Pettinelli says. One with living, breathing microorganisms who spin what you feed them into that “black gold,” and need the right ingredients to do said job correctly. Truth be told, “The happier they are, the better the compost,” Pettinelli says. Fortunately, their demands are pretty simple: water, air and plenty of “brown” and “green” materials to munch on. As for those …
“Everything organic contains carbon and nitrogen,” Maynard says. The tiny dudes in a compost pile use the carbon in “brown” sources (dry leaves, small branches, shredded paper … ) as an energy source and the nitrogen found in “green” sources (fruit and veggie scraps, coffee grounds, pizza crusts, stale cereal, spent flower stalks, hedge clippings, even worn-out cotton towels … ) to build proteins to pump up their bods. Warning: If you don’t want any four-legged friends hosting a dinner party in your compost heap, avoid adding any meats, fish, oils, dairy or pet waste.
Build it and they will come
“Everyone has a slightly different style of composting,” says Sherill Baldwin, an environmental analyst in sustainable materials management with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Just “start with what you have,” she suggests, whether it’s a keep-it-simple open pile, an enclosure fashioned from discarded pallets or cinder blocks, or a spiffy bin you purchase, if you’re lucky, at a discount from your town’s recycling coordinator. As for the site, choose one that’s dry and shady, so it’s not baking in the summer sun.
Ideally, your own personal “fertile crescent” should measure “at least 3 feet high by 3 feet wide by 3 feet long,” Baldwin says, and alternate layers of browns and greens in order to help balance the proportion of carbon and nitrogen. The best mixture to shoot for is a range of one or two parts of green to three or four parts of brown, according to Maynard. But “if you don’t have greens and browns available at the same time, build the pile out of browns and add the greens as they become available,” Baldwin suggests. Just be sure that when adding food scraps you bury them in the center of the pile. “That’s where all the action is taking place,” Maynard says. It also helps to chop your offerings into smaller pieces so that the microbes have more surface area to work with.
“Compost should have a moisture content of 50 percent or so,” Pettinelli says. Too little moisture and decomposition won’t take place. Too much and things can get a bit, um, aromatic. Think of it as akin to the moisture level of a damp, wrung-out sponge — not too wet, not too dry. If unsure, grab a handful and give it a good squeeze — it should leave your hand moist, but not drip more than a few drops.
Now breathe …
Your friendly neighborhood microorganisms need air in order to break down the “gourmet buffet” you throw at them. A good rule of thumb is to “fluff” the pile with a pitchfork or hoe every time you add material,” Baldwin says. A second option is to check a pile’s temperature with a compost thermometer. “When microorganisms are happy, they generate heat energy,” Pettinelli says. “The more heat, the better they are at decomposing.” An active pile will heat to between 130 and 160 degrees as it does its stuff, so “if the temperature at the center of the pile goes down below 110 degrees, it’s time to ‘turn,’ ” Maynard says. You’ll know your compost is “ready” when it’s dark and crumbly, you no longer recognize any of the organic materials you “fed” it, and it’s no longer warm to the touch.
Now, pat yourself on the back and get out those gardening gloves.
Can you compost indoors?
It might seem odd, but yes! You can use a special type of bin, which you can buy at a local hardware store, garden center, or even make yourself from a cardboard box. You’ll also need some microbial-rich materials to get munching; coco peat and hardwood ash are good options. Keep it lightly covered with a cotton cloth or similar material, and remember to tend your pile. (Many of the same principles of outdoor composting apply to indoor operations.) If you do it right, it shouldn’t attract pests or smell bad. Compost should be ready in two to five weeks. And in the dead of winter, think how nice it will be to not have to venture out into the cold to dispose of your food waste.
What to do with the black gold
Here are some of the many ways to use your compost:
• Use it as mulch.
• Mix into potting soil and container plants.
• Add to the planting holes of fall perennials and spring bulbs.
• Drop a thin layer on lawns as fertilizer.
• Add to raised garden beds.
• Use as soil for vegetables.
Not quite ready to start your own compost pile, but would like to keep things green? First, check to see if your municipality’s transfer station accepts compostable food scraps. Otherwise, consider one of these food-scrap collection services which, for a monthly fee, provide you with a bucket for your scraps, which they pick up curbside on a regular basis. Some also deliver finished compost in return.
Peels and Wheels Composting services neighborhoods in New Haven and Hamden using pedal power.
Blue Earth Compost services Greater Hartford, Middletown and parts of the shoreline.
Action Container Service services Black Rock, Fairfield, East Norwalk, Weston, Westport and soon all of Norwalk.
Curbside Compost services Fairfield County.