Leigh McGaghey

Get in the bin: The politics of composting

Composting has quickly become the thing that we should really do one Sunday, but haven’t got around to yet. Here’s how to start.

To compost or not… a modern dilemma that has gripped us all at some stage in our waste-producing lives.

The pros are plentiful: you’re putting your kitchen waste to good use, you’re creating tasty and nutritious fertiliser for your garden, and damn it! it simply makes you feel good in a green, virtuous, post-hippy sort of way.

Ah, but the cons: it will smell, won’t it? And attract rats, mice and all forms of pestilence, including certain parliamentary backbenchers. Probably introduce the Black Plague again. But, your secret fear is the dependency. Compost is needy. Cancel the holiday – you have to feed and water it. Turn it over. Keep it warm.

No doubt about it, making compost is one of the last of the Dark Arts. So let’s step back a bit and question your motivation for wanting to make compost. Are you just trying to assuage your guilt about throwing the veggie peels into the normal garbage which will end up in landfill producing one of the worst of the climate change nasties – methane gas? Or do you really want to make some excellent organic fertiliser for your soil to support your garden’s growth? How you answer those questions will determine which compost path you take.

 

Outdoor compost

This is the good ol’ way. Get your kitchen veggie scraps (green stuff), some hay or old paper (brown stuff), your lawn and garden clippings (combination of brown and green stuff), mix them up, water them, cover with an old blanket and let the magical decomposition bacteria turn it all into rich, natural fertiliser. Or so the story goes. In reality, to get a compost to work well you have to observe a couple of science fundamentals (warning for all you sensitive art/history/literature types: Chemistry 101 alert).

The green stuff provides Nitrogen (symbol N), the brown stuff Carbon (symbol C), which needs to be proportionally mixed at a ratio of 25 parts Carbon to 1 part Nitrogen. So some of you will be starting to see the problem: you need a lot more brown stuff than green stuff to get your compost to behave. Now, this is not a problem if you are happy to shred the morning paper (C) and mix it with your veggie peelings (N) on a regular basis. However, given the demise of print media, one wonders how much longer we’ll have access to those Carbon-rich broadsheets.

I could go on about all the other delicious additives that enhance the compost heap (chicken, cow, sheep, elephant manures; bat guano; human hair; seaweed; sawdust; yoghurt; fungi, eggshells) by providing the all essential other major chemical and trace elements, but suffice it to say that a lot of these additional important elements can also be added through compost accelerators you can buy at a nursery.

All the little microbial bugs need heat, oxygen and water (just like us) to breathe and eat the green and brown stuff, so ensuring the compost pile is covered, moist (but not wet), and turned over regularly to aerate it, is critical to keep the munchers happy. If they’re happy, you’ll be rewarded with nature’s very best soil food and you will be keeping all the constituent parts out of landfill and reducing climate change gas (CH4 – methane!). If they’re not happy, you will have either a gooey, evil-smelling bog straight out of an episode of The Walking Dead which will also pump out its own CH4, or a dry, bored-looking bunch of garden and office off-cuts which you will probably eventually shovel into the regular garbage bin to be sent off to landfill.

Have I put you off your dream of compost nirvana? If you want an amazing fertiliser for your garden, you need to do it properly. Have a look at this to help you along:

 

Bokashi composting buckets

Bokashi composting is a great compromise if you feel the science of mixing brown stuff (C) and green stuff (N) and remembering what you can and cannot chuck into the compost is leaving you a little jaded.

Kitchen scraps are fermented and broken down in a closed system (“the bucket”) through the addition of specially prepared microbial mash or powder. One of the great advantages of this system is that you can add just about anything that once lived (i.e., “organic”) to the bucket, so meat, dairy, citrus, even small bones or carefully-diced pieces of annoying politicians can be composted. Ultimately you have to empty the bucket’s contents, ideally by burying it in your garden soil where it makes a brilliant fertiliser and soil conditioner, but it can take months to fill the bucket, unless of course you composted Clive Palmer. The bucket can sit in the kitchen – it’s indoor friendly, produces no odour and – a big advantage – it’s easy to get at so you’re probably more likely to use it.

 

The worm farm

No more cheap political gags – the worms here are genuine, with good character references. Maintaining a worm farm is an option if you live in an apartment with a balcony. Worm farm kits can be readily bought at hardware stores, but you can just as easily make your own. The worms can be bought online and at hardware stores. With names that Paul Keating wished he’d thought up, the engagingly-named Night Crawlers, Red Wigglers, Tiger and Blue worms are some of the species of compost worms available in Australia. These hungry little fellows are specifically adapted to compost and worm farm life, so don’t be tempted to dig up ordinary garden worms.

Check out this quick intro:

Worm farms are ideal for small amounts of vegetable and fruit scraps, tea bags, coffee grounds and paper waste. Despite having evolved millennia ago these worms are not on the Paleo diet. They do have definite dislikes such as meat, dairy and citrus, so make sure you read up on their preferred diet before lobbing the remains of your Man Burger into their home. The farm needs to be located in a cool spot where you can readily access it to drain off the wonderfully rich worm nectar and periodically refresh the contents.

Some estimates calculate that Australians send four million tonnes of avoidable food waste to landfill every year. A composting strategy, inside or outside your home, can significantly reduce that figure. If you just want to get rid of the kitchen veggie scraps, dig a couple of holes in your garden, dump in the scraps and cover it with soil. That’s what we do. The odd bandicoot will dig it up, but otherwise it works well. The scraps are diverted from landfill and they do gradually break down in the soil and enhance the soil’s fertility.

Whether or not you want to produce compost as a fertiliser for your garden or simply divert scraps from landfill, all the approaches discussed will help you achieve that goal.

Happy composting!

 

Leigh McGaghey

Leigh McGaghey is a landscape architect who’s killed her fair share of plants in her career (along with the odd architect and probably a client or two whose idea of a garden was half a tonne of black pebbles). Leaving behind the sap-sucking world of commercial landscapes, Leigh now pursues her own flow states: delivering workshops that blend psychology and design for would-be gardeners.

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