Oh compost! My compost!

Four watermelon rinds. Dozens of banana peels, cucumber ends, and sweet pepper innards. A fair share of eggshells and more coffee grounds than I care to admit. Limp lettuces leaves, gnawed corn cobs, that random eggplant I forgot about until it was too late, and a fair share of apple cores. At least 10 medium-sized ripped up Amazon cardboard boxes, shredded newspaper, dried out plant stems, and a full garbage bag of fall leaves. My favorite though? The three 5-gallon buckets of spent grains as my husband experiments with beer brewing.

All of it went into my new tumble composter this past summer and fall. And I’m damn proud of it.

All shiny and new at the beginning of May 2022.

Composting is its own type of magic – you put in one thing, something new comes out. Yet, composting has always been a bit of an enigma to me. The formula sounds simple enough: kitchen waste + yard waste + time = less stuff in my trash + good stuff for my garden, but I always somehow convinced myself it would be more trouble than its worth. Where would we put such a pile? What if it smelled and the neighbors complained? How much maintenance does it truly need and how long does it take to ‘bake’ into its crumbly end product? How do I know it’s working? And what’s this ‘greens to browns’ ratio everybody talks about?

The concerns about doing it ‘wrong’ always seemed to kill any enthusiasm I had for trying to actually make composting work. But composting is one of those conservation practices that does quite a bit of good without an unmanageable use of time, energy, or money. It reduces the amount of waste we send to landfills (in the U.S., we send approximately 30-40% of our food supply to a landfill every year – equating to approximately 218 lbs of wasted food per person). It creates a product that helps boost soil health and plant growth in our gardens, saving us money. And heck, it’s a super cool science experiment – watching that pile warm up and shrink as the microbes break everything down is strangely mesmerizing.

With temperatures finally warming outside, I’m excited to get back to the practice of composting. I tried to stick with it through the Minnesota winter as long as I could, but a week visiting family out of state meant that the contents in my tumbler quickly froze. So now it’s about waking things back up and getting those microbes busy and active again.

Here are some of the helpful things I’ve learned along my composting journey.

  • What type of composting bin? Initially, I started with one of the composting bins that are currently on sale in several counties (the Recycling Association of Minnesota partners with county-wide organizations to offer rain barrels and composting bins at a discount). My husband was not enthused about having a set place for the compost and wanted some flexibility to move it. Seemed like a good idea in our first year, so we got a tumbler setup instead.
  • The fear of smells: I wanted to have the compost somewhat near the house and kitchen door so I could easily pop outside and empty my food scrapes bin into it, but I was very nervous about potential compost stink. Thankfully, it’s actually not that hard to keep it from being smelly – you just need to keep your ‘greens’ (aka food scraps – materials high in nitrogen) balanced with your ‘browns’ (aka dry, carbon-rich materials like dried leaves, newspaper, cardboard, etc.). If things start smelling, you have too many greens and need more browns. I was able to easily adjust my ‘formula’ at times when I started detecting any sort of smell and it has never been an issue. I even challenged my husband to directly smell the pile a couple times to see if he could smell anything – he deferred but said he had no complaints. Snort.
Great graphic showing different types of ‘greens and browns’ materials based on their carbon to nitrogen ratio. To avoid smells in your compost, the general rule of thumb is to include up to 3 parts brown material to 1 part green material in your pile. From thatbackyard.com
  • Particle size matters: This year, I’m going to do a better job of making my compost pieces smaller so they process and bake faster. Last season I’d throw in larger pieces of cardboard, newspaper, dead plant branches, or a moldy orange and it would take weeks to see those pieces disappear. Best to help things along as much as possible by making the pieces small to begin with.

  • Just let it be: When my compost pile first really got hot (I measured it at 110 degrees F!) I got super excited and I made a rookie mistake – I just kept adding in more and more material when I should have let that initial pile finish ‘baking’ so I could move it out and start anew. Instead, I ended up with mixed finished and unfinished compost and it led to me not being able to empty out my tumbler as much. This year, going to practice more patience – just let the pile bake into that black gold!

  • It helps with food waste guilt: I am the first to admit that while I hate food waste, I still generate plenty of it. Sometimes those blueberries just get buried at the back of the fridge and go bad, or that now bruised apple that fell on the ground is not going to get eaten. With composting, that food is still ‘doing good’ – it’s becoming something that helps things grow in our garden versus just rotting in a landfill where it converts to methane, a powerful greenhouse gas (municipal solid waste landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States).

I still have a lot to learn, but I’m already eagerly taking tally of what’s already made its way into my composter this year (2 batches of spent grains from beer brewing, 2 Amazon cardboard boxes, dried leaves and plant stems, apple cores, bananas, and other food scraps). I’m already out there with my composting thermometer so I can measure how my pile is heating up. It really is the most amazing science experiment ever!

Yes, I know. I’m a nerd.

Average air temperature this past week was 49 degrees F. My compost is nearing 70 degrees F today!

Here are some of the resources I’ve come back to again and again in my composting journey:

County discounted sales of compost bins and rain barrels are ongoing throughout Minnesota right now!