Common compost mistakes

Environmental Center offers help to Central Oregon gardeners

By Sophie Wilkins / The Bulletin

Compost contacts

To learn about compost from the Environmental Center, visit www.rethink wasteproject.com or email Denise Rowcroft at denise@envirocenter.org.

The center is giving away compost-related prizes to individuals who post a picture of their compost bin along with the hashtag #wecompost on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.

Many people have misconceptions about composting. They believe it will be smelly. It will be a ton of work. Or they wonder if the compost will even benefit their gardens.

Denise Rowcroft, sustainability educator at the Environmental Center, has been working hard to overcome these misconceptions. Rowcroft is giving composting workshops, coaching people via email and visiting people’s homes to share tips and tricks on how to make composting easier and more effective.

At the Environmental Center, in addition to red wiggler worms, Rowcroft uses a three-bin system.

“I just keep all the browns, all leaves piled up in one … with the other two, I have one that I can always put food into and the other one I’m harvesting the compost from,” said Rowcroft.

How to start your own

There are many different ways to compost. You can make bins, or you can buy bins, but composting doesn’t have to be done in a built structure.

“I started (one) in the corner of (a) fence, so it sort of had a barrier on either side,” said Rowcroft. Just find a spot in your yard that you can keep safe from pets or small animals — maybe something that has a little structure. Rowcroft has seen a compost pile that was a hole in the ground that the waste was thrown into.

Just get it started, and then look into what you want to do or build. A structured compost pile is going to be better for families with pets.

“My dog was going in and grabbing (leftover) potatoes,” Rowcroft said of her first pile.

Something easy for people in an apartment or with no yard is a medium-sized plastic Tupperware container. If you place a brick, cup or pot in the bottom of one container and then cut small holes in another other and stack them, you have a small indoor composting bin that is no muss, no fuss.

You can use compost anywhere you want to grow something in your garden, for veggies or flowers. If your plants have leaves that are yellow, they need more nitrogen. Adding nitrogen-rich compost helps the leaves turn green, and the plants thrive.

Key ingredients

A common misconception is that compost piles are smelly.

“Usually if it’s smelly, it means that something is not breaking down properly, it’s rotting,” said Rowcroft. If you have smelly kitchen waste, “you’re either eating out a lot or not eating a lot of fresh food,” said Rowcroft. “It keeps you aware of the fresh food that you’re eating.”

Compost piles need to have a nice balance of greens and browns. Greens are your kitchen waste; fresh food waste that is nitrogen rich. This can be “peels, rinds, coffee grounds, stuff like fruits or veggies that have gone bad, flower stems, from cut flowers,” said Rowcroft. Browns are things like dried leaves, shredded paper and other things that are rich in carbon. Browns include come from your garden or yard. You shouldn’t put something in that had cheese, oil or grease on it. You don’t want to be attracting animals to your compost.

Rowcroft said, “I just keep it straight up fruits and vegetables, coffee and tea, leaves, shredded paper, grass clippings, that kind of thing.”

She said that occasionally she would add some bread if it had gotten stale or moldy or regular white cooked rice, but that generally she doesn’t add grains or bread. You also don’t want to put a lot of weeds into your pile once they’ve gone to seed.

Secret helpers

One of the lowest maintenance options is to add red wiggler worms to your compost pile. They speed the process by decaying organic material faster.

“If you have worms, they do the work for you,” said Rowcroft.

Some people think worms are more work because they require an extra step of picking them out before you disperse your compost into your garden. A trick from Rowcroft: Form a cone of harvested compost on a tarp or in a wheelbarrow and put it in the sun for 10 minutes. The worms get down low in the cone because they don’t like the light, and so the compost at the top should be almost worm-free.

Working it

One of the most common things people do wrong when it comes to composting is just not doing anything.

“If you put your (fresh food waste) in there and don’t do anything to (the compost), it’s not going to magically turn into black gold,” says Rowcroft. “Especially if you don’t have worms.”

The next mistake people make is not watering it enough. In the summer, it’s good to add a little bit of extra water, especially if your compost pile is in a sunny location. In this drier Central Oregon climate, it takes a little more work to get things composting, and some water can go a long way.

If you don’t have worms, you need to work it and turn it occasionally. Turning compost requires mixing up all of the good decomposing stuff on the bottom of the pile. Typically, you should turn your compost at least once a month or a couple times a season. It really depends on the size and location of your compost. Get in and pay some attention to it when you want to harvest the compost and use it in your garden.

“In the spring when I want to harvest, it is pretty much when I pay attention to it,” said Rowcroft. “If you just fold it in to when you do your garden landscaping over the weekend,” said Rowcroft, “it’s really not that much work.”

Other problem issues

Another common mistake that can really slow down the process is putting too much of one kind of waste in the compost pile. When you’ve finished your weekly yard work, or raked the lawn in the fall, don’t put all the grass clippings or leaves in there at once.

“If you suddenly have this layer of like stalk-y kind of stuff … like stem-y things, then there’s this layer that just doesn’t connect the bottom of the pile with the top of the pile,” said Rowcroft. “And it just kind of stops the process.”

Keeping leaves and grass clippings in a separate staging area enables you to add them in slowly, only when the pile needs a little layer of something else. Also cutting clippings or leaves into tiny pieces can speed the process.

If you’re using a smaller system with worms and it’s getting smelly, stop adding things to it for a while. Typically that means you’re putting more food in there than the worms can handle. Rowcroft suggests putting paper over it and stop feeding them for a week, then it should be fine.

A tumbler is another great way to break down your compost faster. Resembling a stationary barrel on wheels, a tumbler allows you to add your compost, close the barrel and spin until what’s inside is combined.

Before Rowcroft started composting, she lived in a house that had five garbage cans in the garage. Once every three months or so, when they filled up or got too smelly to handle, she’d take them to the dump. Once she started composting, the reduction in the garbage output was immense. The trash was mostly made up of plastic packaging, plastic film and other nonrecyclable plastics; everything else was recycled or composted.

“It made a big impact because we could see how much less trash we had,” said Rowcroft. Such a big impact that they eventually only had their garbage picked up on an ‘on-call’ basis.

“(Composting) really does make a big difference in terms of waste and money,” said Rowcroft. “If you actually are able to use it, it’s just icing on the cake.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0651, swilkins@bendbulletin.com