Gardening can be a challenge in Southeast Alaska. Our cool and wet summers combined with nutrient poor soils makes it difficult to grow the beautiful flowers and vegetables pictured on seed packets. While it’s hard to change the weather, there’s an easy and fun way to improve the productivity of our soils without having to purchase synthetic fertilizers or giving up on gardening altogether. It’s called composting.
Part Art, Part Science
The art and science of composting turns ordinary kitchen scraps into nutrient rich organic matter that, as an additive to our soils, can greatly improve the health and productivity of our garden plants.
Step 1: Find a place outside for your composting area. It can be as simple as a spot on the ground in the corner of your yard or a fancy composting facility constructed from lumber. My facility consists of 2 bins, each about 1 cubic yard in size. I constructed the bins with used lumber and wrapped the wood frames with ¼-inch hardware cloth (galvanized wire mesh). The mesh ensures that there is plenty of oxygen to aid in decomposition. Microbes that lack oxygen produce some interesting byproducts (more on that below). Composting bins can also be purchased from a store.
Step 2: Keep the greens out of the trash. You’ve probably noticed that our landfill produces some interesting aromas, namely the stench of hydrogen sulfide, a product of decomposition in the absence of oxygen. This rotten-egg gas is produced by microbes that are busy feeding on all the organic matter (think food waste) we throw away every week. Some of our landfill microbes produce another gas called methane. Methane is an odorless and seriously potent greenhouse gas. Instead of sending nitrogen-rich vegetable and fruit scraps to the landfill, send them to your compost pile. I place my scraps in a small container in the kitchen. When the container is full (you’ll be surprised at how fast it fills), it’s time for nitrogen to meet carbon.
Step 3: Feed the FBI. To be a successful composter, one must keep the FBIs happy. FBI refers to the fungi, bacteria, and invertebrates that are going to do the work of converting your kitchen scraps to the back gold that is compost. FBIs are only happy when they’re getting the right balance of nitrogen and carbon. The scraps produced in the kitchen are high in nitrogen, but some of the FBIs need, like us, a well-balanced diet. A well-balanced FBI diet includes lots of roughage (i.e. carbon), like leaves and saw dust and coffee grounds. So, with every deposit of kitchen scraps to your compost pile or pin, layer in an equal amount of carbon-rich material. I even add shredded paper, cardboard, and discarded cotton clothing as a source of carbon for the FBIs my compost bin. Oh, and don’t forget to add your pesticide- free grass clippings and other yard waste, too. One more great compost additive is seaweed. Although low in nitrogen and other nutrients, seaweed contains important trace elements that plants need.
Some of you may be a little wary about dumping food scraps in your back yards in bear country. I make my kitchen scraps a lot less appetizing to bears (and ravens) by giving them some alone-time in a 5-gallon bucket. Keep the bucket in a bearproof area, such as a garage or shed. Inside the bucket – capped with a well-fitting lid – the scraps begin the decomposition process transforming into a chunky/gooey slurry after a week or two. At this stage, the contents can be added to the compost pile. Just cap them with a nice layer of carbon to keep the smell down and maintain the proper nitrogen-carbon balance.
Step 4: Wait. Now comes the easy part of composting. Once your pile or bin has reached capacity, sit back, relax, and let the FBI take over. Seven days a week, 24 hours a day the FBIs work to convert your kitchen scraps and other additives into rich, dark, organic matter. Like any living creature, they may require some water now and then, so check the moisture levels now and then adding some water with a garden hose as needed to keep it all nice and moist. When the material at the bottom of the pile is dark in color, it’s ready to use.
Consider taking-on composting as a new hobby during these stay-at-home and hunker down days. Composting will help to improve air quality near the landfill, reduce climate change gases, and help you grow flowers, fruits and vegetables like the ones on those seed packets.
Check out this cool video John made to illustrate the composting process!