Composting: The Easiest Way to Recycle

Also: Westchester County Compost Bin Sale is Saturday, May 17

by Judy Silberstein

(May 1, 2008) Okay – you recycle every newspaper, magazine, telephone book, circular, envelope and scrap of paper that comes into your home. Every jar, plastic container (of the proper kind) and cardboard box is hauled to the street every Wednesday. Grass clippings remain on the lawn; leaves, twigs and branches go to the curb on the right day in the right way. Or maybe you’re not quite that conscientious.

Either way, there’s an easy next step to reducing your personal waste stream: composting in a backyard bin.

Larchmont yards are not always expansive, but everyone has room for a plastic bin in which to dump limp lettuce, orange peels, corn husks, watermelon rinds and all the other raw or cooked vegetable matter we toss out of our kitchens every day.
Start with a small container near the sink – it can be a classy aluminum pail or a prosaic plastic jug. Organic matter you don’t eat goes in the container rather than the trash bag. When the pail gets full, dump it in the larger compost bin outside.

The end.

The rest of the work happens almost by magic in the bin, where the vegetables decompose and release most of their water content into the ground. The soil under the bin and any nearby vegetation benefits from the “compost tea” that leaches into the dirt. The relatively small amount of solid matter that’s left turns into free, rich, loamy humus – “black gold” - which ambitious gardeners spread around or under their tomatoes and petunias. Depending on the type of bin, what you put into it and how often you turn the pile, compost production can take from two or three months to two years.

Or, if you’re really lazy (like our family has become) you can just feed the container and do nothing more.

We haven’t taken anything out of our bin for years; yet the bin never fills up. Bacteria, fungi, protozoa and bugs, such as earthworms, centipedes and beetles, do all the work of reducing the contents to a manageable heap at the bottom of the bin. The decaying process produces heat, which also cooks things down and eliminates odors.

Westchester County Compost Bin Sale Day: Saturday May 17

To encourage residents to take up composting, Westchester County is offering bargains on two types of bins at its May 17 event in Saxon Woods Park. From 9 am to 2 pm, rain or shine, you can buy a $40 bin like the one shown above or pick up the simpler $20 model. You also get free compost and free advice. (See: Compost Bin Sale.)

The experts at the county event will probably have detailed explanations on how to compost effectively, but our family has survived for years by following a few simple rules.

One or Two Rules

Compost only vegetables and fruits (including peels, rinds husks and cobs), coffee grounds and egg shells. No bones, meat, dairy, oils or bread (which attract raccoons and other critters). As an extra precaution, look for a container with an animal-proof lid.

Don’t use a bin composter for leaves: Larchmont trees are too prolific and will quickly overwhelm even the largest container’s capacity. If you have the space, you can compost leaves and other garden waste separately in a heap or large enclosure behind the garage or “in the lower forty.” To keep pesky seeds out of the compost, gardeners may want to avoid tossing tomatoes, pumpkins or weeds in the bin or pile. On the other hand, you might enjoy the potatoes and watermelon growing right out of the bin, or you can use other “green gardening” approaches to keep weeds under control.

Janet Beal, one of the local volunteers who maintain the vegetable garden at the Sheldrake Environmental Center off Weaver Street, uses two compost sites – a large heap across the road for leaves, grass and weeds, and a smaller enclosed bin conveniently located behind one of the plots. “Convenience is one of the hallmarks of a good compost heap,” she said. “If it’s not convenient, you’re not going to use it. “We don’t add anything special, we don’t turn it, it we don’t water it,” she said of the compost heap. “When it matures, it gets put into the garden.” The beds are planted densely to starve weeds for space or light. They produce from 300 to 500 pounds of vegetables per year, which are donated to the Food Pantry and to local residences for those who cannot live independently.

At home, in her own, small Larchmont backyard, Ms. Beal has another compost bin. “Best $15 I ever spent,” she said of the open wire bin she purchased at a Westchester County sale a number of years ago. “Soil get old, soil gets tired, just like us,” she explained. Adding compost not only adds nutrients, but also lightens the soil and promotes better root development.

You Can Do More….

You can certainly do a lot more with compost. You can compost animal waste, including kitty litter and dog feces – though a separate “pet poo” bin is recommended. You can build your own enclosures. You can compost paper towels, newsprint and corrugated cardboard, which take longer to break down than vegetables. You can work at perfecting layers of different organic matter to achieve an optimally hot, fast mix.

…Or Not

Or you can just let the compost bin do all the work. You will still get to the critical goal of reducing the amount of garbage Larchmont’s sanitation workers pick up and deposit at the Westchester dump, at a cost of $25 per ton. Our family (reduced to two adults on most days) rarely fills more than half a trash barrel per week.