The Great Composting Experiment

With the growing season on it’s way, here in the JENE garden we’re looking to get our soil tip top. As cover crops are beginning to poke their head up we’ve set our sights on compost.

Compost is the perfect example of nature’s awesome capacity for recycling and the best friend of any organic gardener.  A veritable miracle cure for sickly soil, compost bolsters soil’s nutrients slowly (releasing over months or years).  It balances soil pH, stimulates helpful microorganism populations and helps prevent plant disease. It stabilizes soil structure, allowing for more aeration, less erosion and better water retention. And, because it’s the byproduct of decomposition, the process is extremely easy.

Composting is all about speeding up the natural process of decomposition. Like making a stew, you need to bring the right mix of ingredients to the right temperature.  A healthy compost pile will reach temperatures of 120° to 150° f. The ingredients are two categories of organic matter, green material and brown material. The green material consists of fresh yard trimmings, food scraps, manure and other nitrogen rich, ready to decompose organic material. Brown material – dried out yard trimmings, paper, saw dust and other carbon rich material – helps the green mater to decompose, soaking up moisture and ultimately nutrients. Without enough brown matter compost heaps can become smelly, slimy and attract pests. But with too much, the green mater won’t be able to fully degrade. A tell tale sign of too much brown mater is a compost pile that is not heating up.

To get down to composting, first one needs to set up a composting bin to house your materials as they breakdown. Bins are super easy to make. All you need is four walls and ideally a removable slot or door to have easy access to ready to use compost. Size does matte for compost piles. To make sure you have enough surface area and air circulation, it’s best for compost piles to be from 3ft x 3ft to 5 ft x 5 ft. We used left over branches and corn stalks we had laying around the garden.

Once you’ve got structure in place, it’s time to get composting. Start by laying an inch bed of brown materials, about 4 inches. This is a layer designed to help airflow throughout the pile, so bigger more chunky materials work well – twigs, hay, and dried leaves work well. After capping this foundation off with a thin layer of soil, do this again with brown materials to start your first layer of ingredients. To get best results alternate layers like these of brown and green. Make sure to always cover a green layer with a brown before completing your layering for the day. Leaving exposed food scraps is a recipe for trouble. Cap off each layer with a bit of soil or compost and water it – best for compost to be as damp as a wrung out sponge. To hike your efficiency, you can chop up your materials into finer pieces. The smaller the pieces, the more surface area will be exposed and the more quickly they’ll break down.

We’re at the beginning stages of our compost. With the bin built, we’ve officially started cookin’. We’ve put down our foundation and three layers of material. To make sure we have enough green waste to feed our hungry bin. We’ve recruited folks all over the Brandeis Bardin Campus to collect food scraps for us including our kitchen staff, fellow staff and even a local farm who uses our kitchens to prep for their weekly CSA box delivery.

As usual, we’ll let you know how it goes. Till then!

Molly building our compost bin

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