Composting, easy as dirt


Many folks fantasize about homesteading, gardening and being self-sufficient, yet very few actually achieve a level of sustainability that negates their carbon footprint. However, the key to this highly acclaimed self-actualization of sustainability isn’t the monumental task of overhauling your way of life, but taking one step at a time to transition one’s daily routine into a pattern of habitual effort that accumulates and eventually results in the big picture.

Something we all create that makes up a part of our carbon footprint is trash—more specifically, biological waste like leftover food. All of us eat, but there are a number of things we just don’t or can’t eat. Coffee grounds, banana peels, apple cores, fruit skins, spoiled or leftover vegetables, eggshells, paper products and many other items. These scraps, which would normally just get thrown in the trash, are all fodder for composting. Composting is a simple exercise in recycling that generates a product that anyone who gardens or grows his or her own food can utilize.

You may be thinking, “That’s great and all, but what do I actually do with all this smelly food?” Not to worry, composting can be simple.

Many livestock farmers practice a form of composting that utilizes manure from their animals and materials such as straw and other biological farm refuse. Farmers gather the mixture and pile it in a place where it won’t rapidly erode or be in the way. Time is a major ingredient with composting; it takes time for the separate biological items to degrade into one another. In a farm setting, the pile is mixed or turned over every so often to encourage even distribution of materials and to mechanically break down larger chunks and clumps. However, most of us don’t live on a farm or own a tractor to make a major operation out of our composting. That’s fine. All it takes is a bucket and a little patience.

A friend of the family always had a small white pail under her kitchen sink for compostable waste. Whenever it got full, she would take it out to her garden and dump the contents into a black composting barrel. She would pick up worms after some rainfall and add them the barrel. Every two months or so she would stir the contents with a shovel. When it was time, she removed soil from the bottom that had become viable for gardening. She continues this process today and has a healthy pile of soil, always at the ready, right inside her garden fence.

As fellow stewards of the land and wannabe gardeners, my wife and I have also taken to composting. But like most folks, we didn’t have a fancy composting barrel and didn’t want to drop money on one either. We first started with a five-gallon bucket and lid. You can just drop your food scraps in the bucket. Cracking the lid allows oxygen in, preventing your compost from retaining too much moisture.

Leaves and weeds also made their way into our compost as we took care of the yard.

As you might imagine, the bucket got full pretty quickly. After filling a couple of buckets, we decided to find something that could handle a little more mass. Metal burn barrels were aplenty, but these rust; the idea of mixing oxidized heavy metals into the soil that we were going to use for growing food wasn’t particularly appetizing. Plastic seemed to be the trend, as we looked for viable options. We made the assumption that a food-grade plastic would be suitable for our needs, and so, after some searching, we found a used, 50-gallon olive barrel with a screw-on lid for sale. Here we had another issue though. How do you shake and turn over materials in a 50-gallon barrel? Even with the barrel halfway full, we began to struggle with the mechanics of turning over the soil. It was at this point I decided to make a wooden cradle for it. With some spare two-by-fours, I built a frame that would hold the barrel along its indentations and allow us to spin the barrel sideways. This also keeps us from overloading it as we have to open it from the end to add and remove material.

If you’ve ever thought composting was out of your realm of capability, you probably just never realized how simple it can be. A plastic barrel, garbage can, five-gallon bucket, or any similar container can be used to get you started or even facilitate a full cycle of composting. You aren’t obligated to add every scrap of biodegradable food you produce either. It’s okay to throw some scraps away—the important thing is that you are making the effort to reuse some of what you would have thrown away. You are investing in the soil of tomorrow’s garden. Take pride in this little step that can be the first of many toward a sustainable future.

composting, homesteading, gardening, sustainability, carbon footprint, biological waste, biodegradable


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