Signs of sustainability: Home composting

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Fall is an excellent time of year to compost. Dead leaves are becoming abundant once again. These “brown” materials are just what the outdoor compost needs throughout the year to feed microorganisms, and provide adequate airflow. If you compost outdoors, take the time to squirrel away bags of dry leaves to use in the compost until next fall. You’ll be happy you did!
Composting at home in the backyard, or indoors using a worm or bokashi bin, is a super sustainable practice. Your food, yard, and garden discards are kept on your property instead of transported somewhere else and then mechanically processed. This saves on fossil fuel use, and wear and tear on roads and vehicles. Landfilling food scraps and other organic discards can cause all sorts of problems – from added carbon emissions through fossil fuel use, to methane generation for decades to come. Composting these materials on a large scale is a lot better; however, environmentally-speaking the most sustainable way is to compost right at home.


With home composting, you avoid the hidden costs of additional carbon emissions from transportation and processing. On the back end, you end up with finished compost – a mysterious and almost miraculous product. Earthy, crumbly, “black gold” is exactly what sustains soil over time. Adding compost improves sandy and clay soils alike. It provides nutrients, acts like a sponge to hold moisture during droughts (not this year!), and increases underground biodiversity. The last benefit is one of the reasons why compost can also help to suppress plant diseases.


But is composting at home hard work? Does it attract pests, or generate foul odors? No! Home composting, when done properly, is easy, effective and trouble-free. There are just a few recommended practices for backyard composting, such as: using plenty of dry leaves or other browns, layering so no food shows, and keeping animal products like meat and bones out. The Compost Program at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County (CCETC) provides free info and can help if you have an issue.


If you don’t have a backyard or your landlord doesn’t allow backyard composting, you can try composting indoors. Even those who compost outdoors over the growing season may want to bring their compost practice indoors over the winter. There are several ways to compost indoors. Perhaps the most effective way is to use a worm compost bin. In a matter of weeks, hundreds or thousands of small, “red wiggler” worms turn mushy food scraps into rich vermicompost (worm compost). Of course, as the worm bin caretaker, you ensure that your worms have a happy home – not too hot, not too cold, lots of moist bedding, and the right amount of food.


Another way to compost indoors involves a natural fermentation process, developed in Japan. Bokashi composting is a method where you ferment your food scraps in an airtight container. You purchase (or make) a special bran that contains the particular set of microorganisms that will pleasantly ferment your food scraps. Unlike outdoor composting, you can include meat and dairy in the mix. In a couple of weeks at room temperature, your batch of fermented food scraps will be ready to bury in the soil or add to a compost bin to finish. If you have room, you can allow your food scraps to ferment longer, periodically draining the liquid.


In October and November, the public will have an opportunity to learn all about worm and bokashi composting. On October 20, from 10am to noon, there will be a worm compost workshop at CCETC, 615 Willow Ave. Registered households will learn about composting with worms, and go home with their own starter bin and worms. On November 17, from 10am to noon, Master Composters will offer a class on bokashi composting. All in attendance will have the opportunity to make their own bokashi bran to take home and use with the provided airtight buckets. Each class costs $10 per household and has a maximum capacity of 15 households. Register early at ccetompkins.org or call (607) 272-2292.


Sadly, this fall the Cooperative Extension will NOT be offering our popular Leaf Swap event due to a recent invasive Asian earthworm, commonly called the Jumping Worm. This worm is spread through transporting plants, soil, mulch, and yes – leaf litter. This worm is particularly harmful to area forests because they consume all the leaf litter on the forest floor. Since donated leaves may contain jumping worms or eggs, we have decided to cancel our event to help slow their spread. If you transport leaves this fall for your compost or garden, know your source. Make sure they do not contain jumping worms or eggs.
May you continue, or start, to compost at home – either in your backyard or inside using a worm or bokashi compost bin. Happy fall!

This is the latest installment of the Signs of Sustainability series produced by Sustainable Tompkins. For more information about the organization, visit their website at SustainableTompkins.org. Adam Michaelides is the Program Manager for the Compost Education Program at Tompkins County Cooperative Extension; a program funded by the Tompkins County Department of Recycling and Materials Management.

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