As part of SHED's commitment to the land and to farming, we compost all of our kitchen scraps every day. Six days a week, we fill up large green buckets with meat- and dairy-free discarded food from our kitchen, cafe, and coffee bar and haul it back to our HomeFarm. There, SHED co-owner Doug Lipton sheet-composts it with his tractor. It's not the easy way to go, that's for sure, but it is the right way to go.
Composting has been around as long as there have been humans to make it, and before — there was just no one around to name it. The circle is so nicely closed when the food that comes from the soil in the ground is returned to the ground to make more soil! And it's the best way to amend your own garden. If you haven't yet tried composting, you might consider it. It's truly miraculous to see egg shells and broccoli stems and apple cores and coffee grounds and yellowed lettuce mellow and slowly change back from whence it came.
It also lends a note of terroir to your home gardening efforts. Once you begin to use your own compost in your own ground to feed nutrients into your own food, you begin to cultivate a taste of place. Best of all, composting is cheap. You can buy a pretty compost can with a fitted lid for your kitchen or simply use a discarded ice cream container — it's really up to you. Your pretty can might sit on the counter; your ice cream container, under the sink. When preparing meals, it just takes a short time to get into the habit of putting vegetable cuttings, stems, roots, egg shells, coffee grounds, and tea bags into your compost can — not the garbage.
When creating your compost pile outside, look for a balance between green (grass clippings, fruit and vegetables, coffee grounds, used tea bags, non-diseased plants) and brown (shredded paper, straw, leaves) to build it. The green items add nitrogen; the brown, carbon. Layer the green and brown as you start, watering lightly between layers (this is sometimes referred to as a waste "lasagna.") Doug adds chicken manure from his birds as well as wood ash from the farm's burn pile, their orchard's fallen fruit, and family meal scraps to the daily load he brings back from SHED.
You can add paper towels, paper bags, newspaper, and egg shells in moderation, remembering that paper takes longer to break down. Avoid grease, dairy, glossy paper, meat and fish products, seed-bearing weeds, diseased plants, and pet waste.
Your compost should remain moist to facilitate the breakdown of the organic matter. Aim for it to be as wet as a wrung-out sponge. The pile might need some watering during the hottest months; covering it helps to retain moisture.
Doug turns his sheet-compost pile every few months to provide air to the aerobic microorganisms most responsible for conversion of the "waste" to a soil-like organic-rich compost. If your home compost pile is less ambitious (perhaps, say, you don't own a restaurant!), you'll want to turn it over every few weeks for the same effect.
If raccoons and other creatures are enjoying your pile too much, cover the freshest food with soil after you add it to the pile. That will also discourage flies.
Your compost is ready to use when it resembles something you'd actually like to pick up with your hands. It will be soft and fluffy, uniform in color, and smell like the earth. Because of his volume, Doug starts a new sheet-compost pile at HomeFarm every four to six months; right now, he's planning to spread the oldest pile throughout the orchard. When your compost is ready, spread it a few weeks before planting to allow it to work into the existing soil.
Composting is a terrific family activity. How much less waste can your family produce? It's fun to see your garbage bags get lighter each week. Have worms yet appeared in the pile? Good job, your efforts are paying off! As Doug likes to say, it's a "soilful" pleasure.