I started gardening about 10 years ago to grow specialty produce for my restaurant, The Cottage Place. Once I broke ground I discovered the soil was very poor and there was precious little of it. Our yard was mostly rocks with a little compacted soil holding them together. Since my wife, Nancy, became passionate about building gardens and removing rocks, I bought her a pick axe for her birthday. Then I took on the responsibility of composting the 25 gallons of vegetable waste the restaurant generated each week. Composting is the process of breaking down organic matter with microorganisms to create a rich, black, soil like material that is full of nutrients.
America wastes about 40% of all the food it produces. As a chef, I tried to utilize all the food that came into the restaurant, including scraps and by-products. Composting was a way to utilize vegetable trimmings that were not suitable for the stockpot. Now that we have sold the restaurant and retired, I volunteer at the Flagstaff Family Food Center Warehouse where we collect food from grocery stores and restaurants to feed local families in need. Once food is past its prime, it is made available to local ranchers and gardeners for compost and livestock feed. Anyone can pick up food waste for compost or livestock feed from the Flagstaff Family Food and Warehouse located at 3805 E. Huntington. Pick up times are 9-2 Mondays through Thursday. Ask for Monica or Sierra.
Compost starts with a combination of high carbon and high nitrogen organic matter. High carbon materials are called “browns” which include straw, dried leaves, woodchips, and shredded paper. High nitrogen ingredients are called “greens” which include fresh grass clippings, vegetable and fruit waste, coffee grounds, grains, and manure. These materials are layered; two parts “brown” to one part “green” in a commercial compost bin, a homemade bin or just a pile. The ideal size is one cubic yard (3’ by 3’ by 3’). The decomposing organisms need oxygen and moisture. Layering the dry browns helps to create air spaces, but turning the compost is the best way to add oxygen into the pile.
It is very important to keep the compost materials damp, like a wrung-out sponge, but not soaking wet. If the pile is too dry nothing will break down and if it is too wet, it will become anaerobic and start to smell like ammonia. If these conditions are met, microorganisms in the soil and air will start the decomposition. Adding garden soil or active compost will insure there are plenty of microorganisms to do the work. As the bacteria and fungi consume the nutrients in the pile they generate considerable heat. Compost is considered cool at 75-105 degrees but it may heat up to as high as 155 degrees. Cool compost piles will break down over time, but hot compost piles work faster. The heat will destroy most seeds and pathogens.
One reason compost does not heat up is the large range of nitrogen available in “greens”. Greens can be divided into cool greens like vegetable, fruit and garden waste and hot greens like grain meal, fish meal and livestock manure. Cool greens alone will break down slowly but the addition of hot greens will act like kindling to a fire, making the compost much hotter.
Despite my own carnivorous ways, my compost is vegetarian so I use cornmeal, alfalfa meal or beer mash to heat up the mass of cool green vegetables that I bring home from the Food Center Warehouse. Many folks use livestock manure in their compost and it is effective in generating heat and providing nutrients to the compost, but be aware that manure can add undigested weed seeds, pathogens, and a foul odor to your compost.
I place my compost piles on my garden beds in the off season and on the site of future or dormant beds during the gardening season. The piles drain nutrients directly into the soil and microorganisms and worms from the soil move into the compost. I cover the piles with perforated black plastic because it holds in moisture, collects heat from the sun, and prevents piles from getting soaked in heavy rains.
Compost will provide better soil for gardening, while preventing food and garden wastes from going to the landfill.