Composting Methods 2: Outdoor

For those with outdoor space, there are many composting options available to suit every level of commitment. One of the first considerations for backyard composters is usually the issue of space. While a rural property might have plenty of room for a sprawling passive compost pile, it would likely be a nuisance on an urban lot. Pests are typically an equally important consideration—a yard plagued by raccoons might be unsuitable for any type of open piles or bins. And finally, the amount of work you are willing or able to put into your compost will dictate what methods are best. A compost system that doesn’t work for your lifestyle will be abandoned

Passive Composters

Passive composting is an easy and low-maintenance way to put your organic waste to good use, simply relying on natural decomposition processes to produce compost. It can be as low-tech as a heap in the back yard, a homemade bin system, or a durable plastic bins designed for this style of composting. Not only do most purpose-made passive composter contain odors, keep out pests, and have a smaller footprint than a sprawling compost pile, they simplify  the task of harvesting finished compost with a hatch at the bottom. While the effort needed for passive composting is very low, the time it takes to make compost is quite long, typically between 6 months to a year.

 Compost tumblers will keep pests out, but have trouble letting decomposers in.

Compost tumblers will keep pests out, but have trouble letting decomposers in.

Compost Tumblers

Compost tumblers offer the benefits of an enclosed compost system, but they also have the ability to turn and aerate the contents for faster decomposition. There are many styles of compost tumblers on the market, but most can produce finished compost in a few months with the right mix of materials. There are a few downsides to tumblers, though. Because of their enclosed design, there is no connection to the native organisms in the soil. A compost pile or bin located on the ground has an easy path for earthworms, beetles, microbes, and other decomposers to move in and do their work, but a compost tumbler is closed off from many of these organisms. It also tends to dry out faster than other types of bins in warm weather, as all sides are exposed to the air and conduct heat to the compost inside. Most compost tumblers available are also too small to retain the heat generated naturally from decomposition which kills seeds, root fragments, and pathogens.

Three-Bin Systems

A three-bin system is great for those who are able to devote more time to managing their compost pile and also have room for a larger setup. It is one of the best setups for a hot compost pile, which is an extremely fast way to compost and also kills seeds, root fragments, and pathogens because of the high temperature it works at. The tradeoff is the necessity to frequently turn the compost—literally flipping the whole pile over weekly or more often. You add material to one bin until it is full and then move it into the adjacent bin to turn it, moving it back and forth every week. The third bin is used to once again collect material for the next pile.

 This plastic mesh bin can be unclipped and repositioned to make it easy to turn the compost pile.

This plastic mesh bin can be unclipped and repositioned to make it easy to turn the compost pile.

Portable Bin Systems

Another great option for building a hot compost pile is a removable bin. This can be a commercially available plastic product, a set of DIY hinged wood and wire panels, a simple cylinder of metal mesh, or many other creative designs. The key feature is that the bin can be unwrapped from the compost pile—which should hold itself up if all is well inside—and repositioned next to the existing pile. Then, like with the three-bin system, the compost is turned into the new location. Portable bins can be very cost-effective and can be great for those who don’t have space for a three-bin system, or who want a less permanent option.

Worm Bins

Finally, worm bins are another option outdoors! Areas with mild winters can take advantage of worm bins year round, but in northern climates like in Spokane and Coeur D’Alene, worms must retreat below the frost line to survive. That means that it is important to give your worms an escape route, whether by using a bin that gives your worms contact with the soil or by repatriating your colony every fall. Outdoor worm bins can do double duty as furniture or be attractive landscape features in their own right. They can also be integrated into existing garden areas, maximizing the impact of the worm castings and minimizing your own effort.

Composting Methods 1: Indoor

For people who decide to start composting their organic waste, the choice of what method to use can be overwhelming. A successful composting journey, however, starts by picking a method that will work for your lifestyle and composting goals. To keep yourself from becoming frustrated, it’s important to first evaluate how much time and space you have to devote to composting. Also consider what materials you produce, whether you have pests like raccoons you need to guard against, and whether you want to compost through the winter. Weighing your needs against the features of each composting method will help you decide which to choose. 

Indoor composters are primarily designed to deal with kitchen scraps and other food waste. They can be used year-round and are great for apartments, offices, and other locations that lack outdoor space. They are also often used in conjunction with outdoor systems to take advantage of the benefits of each. While you can simply take a container and construct an indoor compost pile in the same way you would an outdoor pile, it’s very difficult to achieve the right balance of materials, moisture, and oxygen. An unbalanced pile tends to produce foul-smelling methane and attract pests, which are side effects which are generally not welcome indoors. Specialized indoor composting techniques bypass those complications, however, allowing you to peacefully coexist with your decomposing food.

 Worm castings are dark, crumbly, and full of nutrients.

Worm castings are dark, crumbly, and full of nutrients.

Worm Bins

Worm bins are by far the most popular method of indoor composting. As the name suggests, worm bins are typically a container or series of containers housing a colony of worms. While they use carbon rich materials like shredded paper as their bedding (as well as an occasional snack), the worms are primarily a way to turn your nitrogen-heavy food scraps into rich worm castings. If you’re feeding your worms right, the process is odor free and suitable for small apartments and enclosed spaces. There are a few foods that shouldn’t be fed to the worms, though. Meat, dairy, and fats can go rancid before the worms get to them and also tend to attract pests. Alliums, like onions and garlic, and brassicas, like cabbage and broccoli, are naturally strong-smelling and create even more odor when decomposing. Spicy food and citrus can also be harmful. These limitations can be the main reason not to use a worm bin—if you can’t produce enough worm-friendly food scraps, the worms will starve!

Electric Composters

There are several models of electric composters available; these grind up food waste and heat it up to speed decomposition, resulting in finished compost in just a couple weeks. Unlike the majority of compost methods, you can include meat, bones, dairy, and oils, as long as the quantities aren’t too great. While these appliances are fast and odorless, they do tend to be noisy as they grind and turn the food scraps.They also use energy, which can be a downside for those trying to lower their carbon footprint. And on top of paying for the electricity to run the composter, the units themselves are quite expensive, starting around $300.

Bokashi

Bokashi is a relatively new home-composting technique. It uses an airtight bucket and a blend of microbes to ferment food scraps. Food waste is added to the bucket and sprinkled with a dry material, commonly referred to as bran after the most popular choice of substrate, that has been inoculated with microbes. The bran is added every time scraps are until the bucket is full, at which point the sealed bucket is put aside for two weeks to ensure that all the material is fully fermented. Waste liquid, which can be diluted and used as fertilizer, should be regularly drained off while the bucket is being filled and during the final two-week curing process. The finished product with bokashi is often referred to as “pre-compost” as it has not broken down into crumbly, dark brown material. The nutrient- and microbe-rich material can be incorporated into an existing outdoor compost pile or buried in fallow ground, where it will rapidly decompose into finished compost in just a couple weeks.

While bokashi fermentation is an anaerobic process, it is different from the methane-producing anaerobic decomposition that occurs in landfills and soggy compost piles. Bokashi instead has a slightly acrid pickled odor, like sauerkraut or kimchi. The airtight bucket contains these odors, however, except when the lid is opened to add material. Because of the nature of the fermentation process, it is safe to compost dairy, fats, and even small amounts of meat and bones. Unlike worm bins, you can feed your bokashi bin as little or as much as you produce, simply adding bokashi bran as necessary. The necessity of burying the bokashi can be challenging for those with no outdoor space, but the compost can be finished in a soil-filled bin or even gifted to a fellow composter or community garden.

Introduction to Compost

If you are interested in becoming more self-sufficient, growing your own food, producing less waste, and lowering your carbon footprint, composting at home can help with all of those objectives. Compost is not a new idea. Beyond the fact that human cultures have been producing and using compost for centuries (if not millennia), Mother Nature has been composting for as long as organic matter has existed.

What is compost? It’s simply decomposed organic matter. All organic matter decomposes eventually, but composting generally involves techniques that harness natural processes to speed up decomposition. The final product is dark, crumbly, earthy-smelling, and full of nutrients and microorganisms that are beneficial to plants.

 Finished compost is dark and crumbly.

Finished compost is dark and crumbly.

When many people think of compost, they think of worms. And while worms are certainly one decomposer—in fact, one method of composting relies exclusively on worms—they are a relatively minor part of the decomposition process. Worms and other creatures like snails, millipedes, sow bugs, and some types of nematodes, and fly larvae are all visible organisms that work on decomposing the organic material in your compost pile, but the powerhouses are all much smaller. Microorganisms such as fungi, bacteria, and actinomycetes (an unusual bacteria that forms colonies like a fungus) exist in such huge quantities that they are able to break down organic matter at a much faster rate than their larger counterparts, often without you ever seeing them.

Also surprising to most people are the extreme temperatures at which decomposers work. A class of bacteria known as psychrophiles are active at temperatures all the way down to 0°F, although they’re most effective around 55°F. As they oxidize organic material, they produce heat. If your compost pile is large enough to retain this heat, it becomes habitable by the mesophiles. These are your everyday bacteria that survive temperatures from about 40°F to 110°F, with the active range between 70°F to 90°F. Mesophiles are much more effective composters than psychrophiles, and they further warm up the pile to introduce yet another class of bacteria: the thermophiles.

Thermophilic bacteria are rapid decomposers that operate from 100°F up to as much as 200°F, though most home compost piles peak between 160°F and 180°F. These high temperatures will kill weed seeds and pathogens in the compost, which is especially important in commercial composting facilities. Temperatures will naturally drop again after 3-5 days as the bacteria use up their resources, but the process can be restarted by turning the compost pile to aerate and add necessary moisture. It takes a delicate balance of ingredients to reach the thermophilic stage, but mesophilic composting is still quite effective and much easier to accomplish.

Your finished compost will support a complex food web including many of the same macro and microorganisms that aided in the decomposition process. It will also be pH neutral, as the decomposition process buffers acidic or alkaline material. No matter what the original material, the compost will be dark and crumbly and smell like earth. There are often some materials, such as larger chunks of wood or fruit rinds, that don’t completely compost by the time the rest of the pile is finished; these can be screened out and added to the next compost pile. The finished compost can then be applied to your landscape plants and produce, adding vital nutrients to help you grow your next round of compost ingredients.

Plant Spotlight: Galium odoratum

What It Is

Sweet woodruff, Galium odoratum,  is a spreading groundcover native throughout Europe. As its name suggests, it is a sweet-smelling plant found primarily in woodlands. The scent grows stronger when dried, which has made sweet woodruff a popular potpourri for centuries. Its leaves were traditionally used as an herbal remedy for a variety of ailments, and it is still used as a flavoring in some European products.

 Sweet woodruff's foliage will lighten in part to full sun.

Sweet woodruff's foliage will lighten in part to full sun.

Why to Grow It

Sweet woodruff is a fragrant, delicate groundcover for shady areas, and it requires very little maintenance. Although sweet woodruff will spread indefinitely under the right conditions, it is generally not considered invasive in the Inland Northwest. It responds well to control measures, unlike some popular groundcover options. In addition to being an attractive addition to the landscape, sweet woodruff can be harvested and dried to bring its fragrance indoors.

Where to Put It

Galium odoratum thrives in damp shade, to the point that it will easily naturalize in those conditions. This can be a blessing or a curse, depending on your setting and needs. Its growth is more restrained in dry shade, and it can even tolerate full sun, though it may go dormant in the summer without some shade. Deep shade will also intensify the dark green color of sweet woodruff’s leaves.

3 Reasons to Plant in Containers

Containers can be stylish garden fixtures in their own right, irrespective of what they hold. Aesthetically, adding plants in pots adds another layer of interest and depth to the landscape with the varying heights they offer. Pots and containers offer many advantages over planting in the ground. They allow you to have a great amount of control over soil type, nutrients, and drainage. They can be portable, provide easy access, and rein in aggressive plants.  

Portable Perennials

 Citrus trees can be grown in pots and brought inside when the weather cools.

Citrus trees can be grown in pots and brought inside when the weather cools.

The cold winters and hot, dry summers of the Inland Northwest really limit our available plant palette. Making your plants portable, however, can open up new possibilities. Growing non-hardy plants like citrus in pots allows you to bring them inside for the winter to protect them from freezing temperatures. Tender succulents, tropical plants, and other favorites from southern climates can be planted in containers and enjoyed outdoors during our warm months. After a summer outdoors, they can be transitioned to houseplants for the winter. Similarly, plants that are stressed by our long, hot, sunny summer days can be moved to more sheltered, shady locations at the peak of summer. For ultimate portability, choose lightweight plastic pots and a well-drained potting mix. If you love the look of ceramic and terra cotta pots, consider planting in a plastic insert for the best of both worlds.

Accessible Annuals

 Canna lilies in a carved ceramic pot add a tropical flair to this lakeside landscape.

Canna lilies in a carved ceramic pot add a tropical flair to this lakeside landscape.

For annual plants that are only going to last one growing season, it can feel like a lot of work to get down and plant them in the ground for a few months’ beauty. Planting annuals in pots, however, can lessen that burden. Depending on the size of the pot, it can be lifted onto a counter or provide substantial height itself, making it easier on the body. Potting soil is also usually easier to work than native soils, which can be compacted or full of clay or rocks. It’s simple to customize soil conditions for specific plants, adjusting the nutrients, acidity, and organic matter in each container according to the plants’ needs. When the growing season is over, empty pots can be put away until spring rather than leaving bare swaths of dirt, or decorative containers can be left in place to serve as winter interest.

Reined-in Roots

 Small trees like curly willow can be grown in containers to control their roots.

Small trees like curly willow can be grown in containers to control their roots.

Most gardeners have had to deal with aggressive plants with spreading root systems and know the work involved in containing or eliminating them. Planting these troublesome species in containers can be a great solution to include them in your garden with less risk. Many plants in the mint family are well-known for their rhizomatic growth, so pots and planters are an excellent way to enjoy their aromatic foliage and flower spikes without running afoul of their root systems (they can, of course, still spread by seed). And if you simply must have extremely invasive species like bamboo or horsetail in your garden, containers are the only way to responsibly grow them.

It’s not just perennials that make good container plants, however. Small trees can be maintained in planters, both for visual interest and to prevent unwanted habits. Trees that sucker or invade sewer and irrigation lines, like willows, sumacs, or aspens, can be enjoyed in a planter instead. If you’re up to it, root pruning every couple years can help to ensure the vitality and longevity of your potted tree.