There’s something rotten in the state of Grumpiana. It’s the stuff in Grumpy’s new compost bin.
I never had a compost bin before, because I have woods behind my house. Any leaves, clippings, branches, etc. that come from the yard get thrown in the woods. But what about kitchen waste? I was never comfortable about dumping a pot of black pudding or some left-over haggis and offal back there. What if I caught a British family having an alfresco breakfast the next morning? So I dutifully put it all out with the garbage.
Then Grumpy had an epiphany! Grumpy grows flowers and vegetables. Flowers and vegetables need good soil. What if I turned all of my yard and kitchen waste into good soil by composting it? I took the plunge and got me an Aerobin composter.
I liked the Aerobin because it’s blocked-shaped, easy to fill and empty, and holds a lot of detritus — 15 cubic feet. It is heavy-duty and critter-resistant — very important if you have roving bands of British in your neighborhood as we do. It has a leachate tank on the bottom to collect the liquid goo (kinda like manure tea) that forms as stuff breaks down and also a tap so you can collect the liquid and use it on your plants. Finally, you don’t have to turn the compost to keep it aerated and the reaction going.The Aerobin has a “lung” in the middle — it’s a plastic device that looks like the agitator in your washing machine — that circulates air through the mass of stuff from top to bottom.
Good air circulation is key to proper aerobic composting, says the Aerobin brochure. In the presence of air and oxygen, the composting microbes release CO2 and an earthy, but not unpleasant odor. Without aeration and oxygen, you get anaerobic decomposition, which produces methane and a foul odor. (Obviously, those lentils I ate last night are undergoing anaerobic decomposition right row. Whoa, Nellie!!)
Methane is bad for two reasons. First, it traps 20 times more heat in the atmosphere than CO2, increasing global warming. More importantly, no one will sit next to you in church.
Compost done right gets hot — up to 160 degrees in the center. This is good, because the heat kills weeds, fungi, and insects, ensuring that the finished product will improve your soil, not infect your plants.
The Key to Composting
Grumpy is about to reveal the most significant (and also boring) fact relating to composting. So if you’ve had trouble sleeping lately, keep reading. This is called the carbon-nitrogen ratio. Scientists have determined that the best, most flavorful compost results from a carbon-nitrogen ratio of 30 to 1. Carbon comes from “brown” materials – fallen leaves, shredded newspaper, pine straw, peanut shells, eggshells, etc. Nitrogen comes from “green” materials – grass clippings, fresh leaves, coffee grounds, food waste, etc.
Brian collects “green” material — bolting spinach — from our veggie garden.
Each of these materials has its own carbon-nitrogen ratio. For example, old leaves are 60:1, shredded newspaper is 175:1, coffee grounds are 20:1, and grass clippings are 20:1. So it’s up to you to calculate exactly how much of each material when mixed together will yield an an overall ratio of 30:1.
Grumpy tried this once, using the same mathematical algorithm he used to direct Belgium’s only moon mission in 1975. The Belgian lander, named the “Croissant” in honor of Belgium’s native language, French, successfully touched down in Minnesota, a moment of great pride for Belgians the world over.
The Easy Way Out
Forget the carbon-nitrogen ratio. Do what Grumpy does instead. As you fill the composter, alternate layers of of moist brown materials and green materials. After adding a layer, sprinkle a shovel full of soil from your garden over the top. This small amount of soil contains billions of healthy microbes and acts like a primer to start the composting reaction — the same way yeast turns mash into moonshine.
If everything’s working right, the compost should heat up quickly and produce an earthy, but not unpleasant smell. No smell? Composting has stopped, because the material is too dry. So add water. Terrible smell? The mixture is either too wet or you’ve mistaken your composter for your outhouse.
Things I Throw into My Composter
Grumpy has just gotten started, but so far his composter holds corn shucks, corn cobs, moldy squash, stale bread, coffee grounds and coffee filters, garden clippings, moldy fruit, old celery stalks, pistachio shells, an old peace lily I didn’t want anymore, spinach and lettuce from the garden that had bolted, and left over pasta.
Then I had a stroke of genius! For years, I has been putting shredded financial documents out for the recycling guy. I thought this was mighty sustainable of me, but I had to stuff them in a plastic trash bag. Why not compost them?
I did! I filled bucket after bucket with them, wet them down, and then layered them into into the composter. All evidence of my off-shore bank accounts, Ponzi schemes, insider trading, bribery, gambling winnings, second secret wife and family, and illegal campaign contributions to Stephen Colbert not only were shredded, but turned into soil! Sift through that, Federal Government!
Things You Can’t Compost
Here’s a list of things the brochure that came win my Aerobin says you shouldn’t throw in there.
1. Meat. If you do, you’ll attract more British.
2. Dirty diapers. (What? What else am I supposed to do with them?)
3. Magazines (especially Southern Living). The inks could be toxic to plants.
4. Spent nuclear fuel rods. They take thousands of years to decay.
What About Cats?
The last time our cat, Ketchup, barfed on the carpet, I said, “That’s it! He’s getting composted!” Brian, who’s very excited about our new composter, was all for it. But then I asked myself, “Is this really the right move? I mean, I don’t even know his carbon-nitrogen ratio.” So Ketchup has been pardoned — for now.