How to start composting

Americans produce about five times as much trash per capita as does the rest of the world: a truly shameful statistic. Even while the news shows images of food bank lines stretching for miles, we still manage to waste far more food (about 40% of everything we buy) than the average human. Most of this food waste ends up in landfills, which are rapidly reaching capacity; by some estimates, over half the waste in municipal landfills could be composted and used to build soil fertility. It’s also frustrating to see thousands of plastic trash bags filled with grass clippings and raked leaves headed to the landfill where they won’t decompose effectively when rebuilding the soil is one of the very best weapons we have against climate change.

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Our original compost pile.

If you’re looking to reduce your own waste stream, starting a compost pile is one of the best and easiest solutions. And if you’re cooking at home more these days, as most of us are, you might find yourself producing a lot of food scraps that could be put to much better use than the landfill. Composting has long been presented as too challenging / too time-consuming / too complicated / too messy / too smelly / impossible on a small scale. If managed correctly it is none of these, and is one of the very best ways to make your own plants better, even if you’re simply growing fresh herbs on a sunny windowsill.

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Our current compost set-up, in a photo obviously from 2019’s wet spring. (We haven’t seen rain clouds like that even once this year.)

Nature does not create waste; dead and decaying things are constantly regenerated into the ecosystem. Think of a damp, cool forest floor: all of those leaves and branches and fungi and invertebrates and thousands of other creatures working together to create a hospitable growing environment. Composting is at heart a very simple procedure: trillions of microorganisms breaking down organic matter into a more usable format that can be endlessly recycled into your garden. The two most important components of good compost are oxygen and moisture, which is why your compost pile will need a bit of management: you’ll need to turn it, and possibly water it, on a reasonably regular basis.

The first thing to know about composting is that there is a solution for every single household, from tiny bins to industrial barrels. The size of your individual operation depends on your household, your yard space and how you plan to use your compost. There are certain things we can do here on our acreage that might not be practical for your situation; we generate a lot of organic matter (leaves, plant trimmings, chicken waste, etc.) and so have a fairly large compost pile. Please customize as necessary.

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This year’s volunteer squash in the compost pile.

Choose your location for your compost pile, making sure that it’s easily accessible to both turn the compost and to eventually spread it on your garden. If you have the space, repurposed shipping pallets are a terrifically inexpensive way to build a two- or three-part compost system; we put current compostables on one side while the other side is breaking down, then switch as needed. We also keep a small plastic tub with a tight-fitting lid in the kitchen and empty it into our compost pile daily. Garden centers sell large and small composting solutions; many homes use large plastic compost tumblers, which keep everything contained. These are certainly neat in appearance, but any compost stored off the ground will never attract worms and other beneficial bugs, and material in these tumblers doesn’t decompose quickly in the mostly-anaerobic environment. These also tend to be rather costly; gardening isn’t a competition to see who can spend the most money.

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Eggshells, fruit and vegetable scraps, paper tea bags and coffee grounds should go in your compost.

What you put in your compost pile matters, because you’ll eventually be eating it if you use your compost on edible plants. Any fruit or vegetable scraps, peels or cores can go in, as well as paper tea bags, coffee filters, eggshells, wood ash, napkins and paper towels. Avoid the microplastic tea bags (avoid these anyway; steeping these in boiling water allows your body to absorb the tiny endocrine-disrupting particles), staples, stickers and plastics of any sort. Never put dog, cat, human or any carnivore waste in your compost. Most backyard composting guides recommend not composting meat and dairy, mainly because it can attract unwanted predators; we can tell you from experience that an entire hen – feathers, bones and all – will disappear within a week in a well-managed home compost pile. (Fun fact: a 1,500 pound dairy cow can be entirely decomposed in an industrial compost operation in three weeks. Probably don’t try this at home.)

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Plastic, staples, stickers and microplastic tea bags should not go in your compost.

You want to aim for a balanced mix, usually about a one-to-four ratio, of “green” to “brown” in your compost pile. Green refers to anything fresh, including kitchen scraps, manure and grass clippings. Brown means anything with lower moisture content, including straw, dry leaves, sawdust, newspaper, corn stalks and so on. Greens are rich in nitrogen and do most of the actual decomposition work; browns are rich in carbon and provide food for the microorganisms. Keep in mind that everything you compost – including standard lawn chemicals – ends up in your plants, so think twice about how you treat your weeds unless you enjoy gargling with Round-Up. (It really does cause cancer, even though it doesn’t have to carry a warning label.)

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Once your compost pile gets going it should have hundreds of happy worms.

The compost pile should be turned over regularly, to aerate the pile and allow the matter on top to be incorporated; it should always be about as damp as a wrung-out sponge. Depending on where you live you may need to water your compost; in our dry climate we have to water frequently in order to keep the decomposition moving. If your compost pile is kept properly damp, turned and aerated, it should never smell and it should never attract swarms of flies, but it should be full of worms. If the compost stinks, it’s typically an indication of poor aeration and/or overly high nitrogen; turn the pile more frequently and add more brown materials.

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This compost is ready to use.

You’ll know your compost is ready when it looks mostly uniform and the individual scraps and bits can no longer be identified; if it looks like crumbled chocolate cake and smells rich, damp and earthy, you’re in great shape. The amount of time it takes to produce finished compost varies widely according to your climate, the size of the pile, the moisture level and the amount of material added, but we try to build ours on annual cycles. Once you’ve achieved this stage, stop feeding this compost pile; you can move the finished compost to a receptacle if necessary so you can start over. Your compost can be used to top-dress your plants, and you can also combine compost and water to make a nutrient-rich compost tea for your garden.

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Why make compost? So you can have soil that doesn’t break pickaxes and pitchforks.

Setting up our compost bins was one of our very first tasks here on Quiet Farm, because good compost takes time and we knew we’d use as much as we could make. Plus, we have abysmal soil here and adding in compost regularly helps aerate and lighten our heavy, rocky clay. Even now we burn through our compost far faster than we produce it; unfortunately, the only source for purchased compost in our area comes from the dairy and chicken feedlots, and that’s not a waste stream we want to be part of. So we use what we have where it will offer the greatest impact.

If you’re not able to start composting where you live, do check with your local municipality. They may have an existing composting program you can participate in, or you might be able to start one. Many cities and towns also have large-scale industrial composting facilities, and often the compost produced is given to residents for free or at a nominal charge. We’re at a point where we all have to make a concerted effort to improve what we can in our gloomy, fractured world, and we can literally start at the ground up, by producing less waste and regenerating our depleted soil. Go forth and compost, friends. It’s easier than you think.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Farm update: March 9

How are you doing? It’s probably been a whipsaw week where you live, too. Here we are trying our best to stay busy and avoid the headlines (easier said than done). A few things we’ve been up to, if you’d like to see:

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The bees love coffee as much as we do!

One sure sign of warming weather (which is coming far too early, in our opinion) is enhanced bee activity. On warm, sunny days we’re seeing lots of bees buzzing in the compost pile (they particularly love our spent coffee filters) and also near one of our big trees that’s in early bud. The apple trees in the surrounding orchards haven’t bloomed yet, but it’s always nice to know that our resident bee population survived another winter.

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How to save the world

Last Friday, millions of people around the world marched as part of a “global climate strike.” The march was intended to draw world leaders’ attention to the climate crisis in advance of the U.N. General Assembly taking place this week in New York City. While the sight of millions of mostly young people taking to the streets to make their voices heard is heartening in theory, teenagers in expensive sneakers carrying smartphones and pithy signs aren’t going to change the perilous trajectory we’re on.

Despite the fact that we are by far the world’s largest consumer and by extension the world’s largest polluter per capita, the U.S. is the only country in the world still debating the very existence of climate change. While other countries have their heads down working to find solutions, we’re still arguing over whether this is actually happening, and if so whose fault it is. (Spoiler alert: ours.) This disparity will be on full public view this week at the U.N.; once again, we’ll look like idiots on the world stage, a role in which we’re becoming increasingly comfortable.

Here’s the painful truth: we can’t protest the idea of large corporations destroying the planet, because we are the reason those corporations exist. If we didn’t buy their products – if we didn’t upgrade our iPhones every year, if we didn’t rob each other at gunpoint for thousand-dollar puffer jackets, if we didn’t accept and then dispose of two million plastic bags per minute – these corporations wouldn’t be able to plunder the planet. We are the problem, and by that logic we also have to be the solution.

Mental health professionals have reported a sharp uptick in the number of people seeking treatment for depression related to the environmental catastrophe we’re facing. It’s a massive, complex problem, and it’s easy to feel hopeless when confronted with its scale. On a personal level, I’ve long since graduated from severe eco-anxiety and now find myself teetering on the cliff of abject climate despair. I don’t think we’re going to be able to fix this, but we can’t choose to do nothing and watch the world implode around us. With that in mind, here are five things we can implement immediately that might just make a difference.

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Farm update: June 3

Hello there! Has summer finally started where you live? We’re excited for warm weather and sunshine and to get all of our tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and other summer crops into the ground finally.

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The raspberry plants are tiny, like our fruit trees, and are protected with plastic cages.

A few weeks ago we planted forty raspberry plants, ten each of four different cultivars. We planted both summer-bearing and fall-bearing varieties, in the hopes of having fresh raspberries for months on end. We don’t expect to see any fruit this year, but raspberries typically do well in this area so we’re looking forward to bountiful future harvests. In order to plant these canes, we used the excavator to dig long, wide beds, then we filled those beds with about eight cubic yards of soil from Mount Doom. This meant around thirty-six wheelbarrow loads moved by hand – we farm like it’s the 1850s over here, friends. One day, we’ll have a tractor. One day.

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Greens this fresh make those plastic supermarket packets taste like nothing.

We were excited to harvest our first salad greens and radishes; shown here is a mixture of Buttercrunch lettuce, pak choi, red Russian kale and lacinato kale. Our greens are pretty late this year; next year we hope to have our high tunnel built so that we have fresh greens throughout the winter and early spring. Few things taste better after months of heavy, rich, starchy foods than a bright, crisp salad.

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A male Bullock’s oriole waiting for the buffet to open.

Although we love seeing the hummingbirds at our feeders, we’ve found that the local population of Bullock’s orioles (Icterus bullockii) appreciates the easy sugar hit, too. The orioles are much bigger than the tiny hummingbirds, and when they’re on the feeders they scare the hummingbirds away. Because they’re so big, they also cause the feeders to swing wildly and spill sugar syrup everywhere, which makes a sticky mess. We haven’t yet figured out how to keep the hummingbirds coming while discouraging the orioles, even though their flashy yellow plumage is gorgeous.

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So much tidier now!

We built a new bin structure for our compost using salvaged shipping pallets; you can see the original small compost pile here. (We think pallets are one of the most useful free things you can find!) Now the compost can be kept neater, and it’s simple to throw fresh organic material into the left bin while waiting for the right side to finish “cooking.” When we get that tractor it will be a lot easier to move the finished compost onto the vegetable beds.

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Welcome home, chickens!

And then there’s this news: Quiet Farm has twelve new residents. They are a motley, ragtag bunch, who came to us because a friend was moving house. We have at least two roosters (maybe three; one is sensibly staying quiet for the moment) and an assortment of breeds. They’re still laying pretty well for older birds – certainly enough for our needs – and thus far they’ve had an exciting time exploring their new home. More on the chicken house renovation coming soon!

Have a great week!

 

Things that are great, vol. 2

Modern lives contain way too much negativity, a cycle perpetrated by a fear-mongering media looking to sell us stuff we don’t need. In the interest of combatting that mentality, then, we present our second “Things That Are Great” link round-up, highlighting news stories and trends that we think are worth celebrating. (Read our first positive link collection here!)

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Photo clearly not taken in Colorado.

If you had to guess at the largest irrigated crop in America, you might well assume corn or soy. You’d be wrong; however; according to a 2015 NASA study, lawns represent about 40 million acres in the U.S., or about three times as much land as corn. All this grass comes at a steep price: 9 billion gallons of water per day, plus hundreds of millions of pounds of fertilizers and pesticides and other chemical treatments, all of which eventually end up in our water sources. And yard waste, including grass clippings and leaves, represents the largest single occupant of our landfills, too. All this for a crop we can’t even eat? Ridiculous.

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Thankfully, though, forward-thinking companies are working to change that antiquated attitude. All across the country, edible landscapes are “unlawning” America. Converting pointless, thirsty lawns into healthy, local human food? Yes, please. These edible landscapers often face a lot of resistance from restrictive HOAs, but progress is still being made, albeit slowly. If you’d like to replace your lawn with native plants, check with your local extension agent – they’re often the best source of information for what will grow best and still look nice in your region.

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Farm update: October 8

Hi! How was your weekend? We survived our first Applefest and we think we’ve made all of the necessary repairs on our irrigation system so that we can call for water in two weeks (more on that soon). I made yogurt, but I’m still searching for a source of truly local milk that I can get basically straight from the cow. Most of the cattle around here, however, are raised for meat, not dairy, so I’ll keep on looking. Here a few other things we’re up to:

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It was all very dramatic here for a time.

We were thrilled to have nearly a week of cool, damp weather (the mesa got its first snowfall!). This is such a rarity over here that you could almost hear the valley’s farmers cheering when the rains came. The high winds destroyed our flagpole (N rescued the flag) and the heavy rains helpfully identified some heretofore unknown leaks in our house, but we are still inestimably grateful for the moisture. Even the pasture came back a bit, with tiny green sprouts everywhere. Water is life, make no mistake.

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Quiet Farm’s first official crop! I’ll sell them as fancy microgreens and charge a fortune.

Speaking of tiny green sprouts, I attended a women’s farming conference last weekend in Estes Park and I planted some arugula before I left so that I could say in all honesty that I’m a farmer! Spicy, peppery arugula is one of our favorite greens, and it grows so well, especially in spring and fall, that I used it to test the soil fertility in an existing makeshift raised bed shoddily constructed (not by us) from cinderblocks. The arugula sprouted beautifully – along with tons of grass and possibly some thistles. Since there is no grass (or thistles) nearby, I’m at a loss to explain this, but now I have to painstakingly weed my tiny arugula. Pro tip: know your soil before you plant. This is not a good use of farm time.

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Local sunflowers drying for seed harvesting.

This spring I attended a seed saving class, and I’m looking forward to participating in an even more intensive teacher training in a few weeks. Saving seeds is an important part of food sovereignty; if we really want to opt out of our industrial food complex, we need to own the seeds, too. So we’re working on building up our own Quiet Farm seed bank, and we’re collecting, drying and storing seeds whenever we can. Once we grow our own vegetables, grains and herbs, seed saving will become an even bigger task each fall.

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Our compost pile. It’s not pretty, but it’s so valuable.

Just about any gardening or small-scale farming book you’ll ever read will extol the virtues of compost, and we’ve got ours started. We identified an otherwise unusable plot about equidistant between the kitchen and the future raised beds, so it’s easily accessible to all. We began with lots of old straw bedding and manure from the animal pens; we’ll need to clean the pens out anyway before we purchase our goats and it makes a beneficial addition to the pile, especially since the manure is well-aged. All of our kitchen waste, leaves, weeds and other organic material go in, too. At the moment we’re watering it frequently because it’s been so dry, but we’re hoping for a long, wet winter and it will be perfect for building up the fertility of our raised beds next spring. As a rule, never let even a scrap of organic material leave your property.

This week we plan to tear up the oddly rumpled carpet in our sun porch and replace it with some durable and water-resistant flooring, since it will shortly become a mud porch. We’ll repair two broken window mechanisms and patch our newly discovered leaks. We may take down a couple of dead trees, and hopefully establish our woodpile, too. Thanks for reading, and have a lovely week!