Greens & Browns

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Lately, I have been obsessing over compost.

I don’t know why, but it makes for a rather healthy hobbie.

“Compost is organic material that can be added to soil to help plants grow. Food scraps and yard waste currently make up 20 to 30 percent of what we throw away, and should be composted instead. Making compost keeps these materials out of landfills where they take up space and release methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

All composting requires three basic ingredients:

Browns – This includes materials such as dead leaves, branches, and twigs.

Greens – This includes materials such as grass clippings, vegetable waste, fruit scraps, and coffee grounds.

Water – Having the right amount of water, greens, and browns is important for compost development.”

Growing up, we had a massive compost pile next to our stone wall. It fed the land and critters, as you can imagine up in the northern Adirondack mountains.

I can always remember being afraid yet excited to go get a bucket full of fresh black earth, because I never knew if or when I would run into the rather large snake family that set up shop in its warm hills.

Composting does so much for the ecosystem. It fertilizes our earth, adds to the biosphere, and can reduce the amount of garbage your family creates.

“A compost pile helps retain moisture and suppresses plant diseases and pests. It reduces the need for chemical fertilizers, and encourages the production of beneficial bacteria and fungi that break down organic matter to create humus, a rich nutrient-filled material. Whatsmore, it reduces methane emissions from landfills and lowers your carbon footprint.”

Every house and apartment should recycle. Every home should compost. It’s simple. It’s easy. And makes your conscience feel better. What is there to lose?

To get started, ask yourself four basic questions about each ingredient:

1. Is it biodegradable?

2. Will it help make high-quality, nutrient-rich compost?

3. Did it come from a chemical-free lawn?

4. Is it free of disease, toxins, and other contaminants?

The following is a rather long and most extensive list I could find on the Do’s and Don’ts of Green & Browns.

Now, go and get messy! It’s good exercise! 🙂

The Good Stuff Greens
Aquarium water, algae, and plants (from freshwater fish tanks only) add moisture and a kick of nitrogen.
Chicken manure has high amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.
Dead houseplants add a dose of nitrogen, but don’t include thorny or diseased plants.
Fresh grass clippings should be mixed with plenty of drier, brown material, or you’ll risk creating a smelly pile.
Green garden debris, such as spent pansies, bolted lettuce, and deadheaded flowers, can all be recycled in the compost bin.
Horse manure contains more nitrogen than cow manure.
Manure from pet rabbits and rodents (e.g., gerbils and hamsters) can be composted with the accompanying wood or paper bedding.
Vegetative kitchen scraps (carrot peelings and the like) should be buried in the pile so they don’t attract animals.
Eggshells are okay, too.
Weeds can be composted! No joke. Just remember never to add weeds that have set seed or weeds that root easily from stems or rhizomes, such as field bindweed and Canada thistle.

The Good Stuff Browns
Brown garden debris, such as corn and sunflower stalks, dried legume plants, and dried potato and tomato vines, adds bulk to the pile.
Hedge prunings and twigs help keep a pile fluffy but should be chipped first so they decompose faster.
Leaves are an abundant carbon source and full of nutrients.
Stockpile them in fall so that you have them on hand in summer. Pine needles decompose slowly. Add only small amounts to your pile. Use excess needles as a mulch.
Straw bulks up a pile, but it should not be confused with hay, which often contains weed and grass seeds and shouldn’t be added to compost (unless you want to deal with the potential consequences).

The Bad Stuff
The following items should never be added to compost, because they could introduce harmful pathogens, toxins, and nonbiodegradable material.

Diseased plants must be disposed of in the garbage or burned. Adding them to compost could spread the disease.
Dog, cat, pig, and reptile manures (and associated bedding) may contain parasites or dangerous pathogens that are harmful to humans, particularly pregnant women, children, and people with compromised immune systems. Never add them to your compost.
Gypsum board scraps could contain paint and other undesirable toxins.
Materials from the side of the road, including grass clippings and leaves, could contain petroleum residues (such as oil), toxins, and nonbiodegradable materials.
Meats, dairy products, bones, and fish decompose slowly, smell, and attract animals.
Paper, especially glossy paper, printed with colored ink, may contain heavy metals. Black-and-white newspaper is safe.

The So-So Stuff
Many things found in the average home are nontoxic and biodegradable and come from a known source—but they aren’t great compost ingredients because they break down slowly, mat together, or don’t add many nutrients.

Black-and-white newsprint and office paper can be used in the compost pile if you’re desperate for brown materials, but they must be shredded. Try using the newspaper in sheet mulching projects and recycling office paper instead.
Cardboard is best used in sheet mulching. Shred or chop it into small pieces if composting.
Dryer lint may contain synthetic fibers that will never decompose. Even natural-fiber lint adds no benefit to compost.
Human and pet hair can be added in small amounts, if you keep in mind that it breaks down slowly, mats easily, and sheds water.
Natural-fiber cloth doesn’t add any benefit to the compost pile.
Consider using burlap bags under wood chips to prevent weeds instead.
Sawdust must be used in moderation, because it breaks down very slowly and can lock up nitrogen. Never use sawdust from treated or painted wood.
Vacuum bags may contain synthetic carpet fibers and other nonbiodegradable items.
Wood ash adds potassium (potash), but it is an extremely alkaline material and should be used in small amounts.
Wood chips should be used as mulch around ornamentals because they break down so slowly.

So, I hope this has inspired you to get out there and get those hands dirty! Composting can also be a great meditative practice as well.

Contact your local compost initiative, or better yet, set one up yourself!

Happy Composting!

References
1. Home Composting Made Easy.
2. The United States Environmental Protection Agency.
3.  Albany Radix Ecological Sustainability Center Compost Initiative.
4. Organic Gardening.

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