By Femke Oldham
How do you make a home compost pile? What goes in the pile? What is compost, anyway? These are just a few of the questions that The Watershed Project experts answered last weekend at the San Pablo Farmer’s Market. English and Spanish speakers alike were greeted with a slew of bi-lingual handouts and educational materials. Spanish-speaking staff were on hand to explain the details about installing home compost piles and how residents can get the most out of their green bins. Under the bright autumn sun, San Pablo residents toted colorful vegetables, munched on fresh-popped kettle corn and learned the ins and out of “black gold.”
In short, compost is plant parts turning back into soil. When we compost, we are using nature’s recycling system. Food scraps and yard waste become fertile, rich dirt that can be used to grow new plants and food. Better soil retains water and sends more of it to the plants. Better soil also means increased nutrients to produce healthy and resilient plants that are able to resist diseases and herbivorous insect damage.
The best part is that it all happens in one place: your yard! That means we save fossil fuel by reducing the transport of our waste. We also save money because we don’t have to buy fertilizer or compost to grow a healthy garden. When we allow natural processes to work their magic, the benefits just pile up.
It’s easy to build a pile. Find an open space and start to toss on the waste. It is best to make layers of “greens” and “browns.” Greens are grass clippings, fresh weeds (without seeds), food waste including eggs shells, coffee grounds/tea bags, vegetable/fruit scraps, and manure from animals that eat plants like chickens, rabbits, and horses. Browns are dry leaves, straw and hay, dry plants or prunings, cut up paper towels or brown bags. Make sure to avoid cat or dog manure or litter, bread, cheese or other dairy, meat or bones, and weeds with seeds on them.
After you have layered your pile, stir it up and add enough water to make it as damp as a wrung out sponge. The stirring adds air that, when combined with water, makes good space for fungi, bacteria, and insects–these are the organisms that break down the waste for you. The frequency with which you stir and water your pile will determine how fast it produces usable compost. If you are actively managing your pile, you can make fantastic compost in three to eight weeks. If you’d rather just let it sit, no problem. Compost eventually happens.
One important note is that it’s best to put a cover or wall around your pile to keep out rodents. There are plenty of models out there. A simple internet search will turn up dozens of bin and container designs. Once your compost is complete, you need only to dig it into the soil around your plants and, just like that, you have a resilient and healthy garden–free of charge.
Workshop participants at the San Pablo Famer’s Market had a chance to feel and smell finished compost. Even the most timid composters were impressed by the fresh and earthy texture of this magical soil. If you have any questions about compost or your green bins, please feel free to contact our resident compost maven Martha Berthelsen at firstname.lastname@example.org.