A Beginner’s Guide to Composting

by, Lisa Migliorisi, Certified Master Composter

Composting in Staten Island

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photo credit: snug-harbor.org/compost/

While composting is gaining popularity, it is less popular in Staten Island than in other parts of the city. This is likely due to the limited access to local composting sites. The North Shore of Staten Island typically has several options available to them. Mid-island and South Shore residents don’t have easy-access drop-off sites within their neighborhoods and they are less likely to travel to drop off their compost. With the current pandemic, many Staten Island compost drop-off programs are currently closed until further notice, which makes the act of composting seem unobtainable. With this guide to home composting you can feel confident starting to compost in the comfort of your own backyard.

What is composting?

compost, composting

Composting is often misunderstood. Most people think composting means having a pile of smelly, rotting food in or around your home. I am here to tell you that this is not the case.

Composting is the process of converting organic materials into a rich soil amendment. It happens where there is sufficient organic matter, moisture, and air to nurture the microscopic bacteria, fungi, and other organisms that decompose organic matter. 

This guide to composting will teach you about the benefits and practices of odorless home composting.

In order for organic waste to break down, it needs four (five) components:

  • carbon
  • nitrogen
  • water
  • air
  • Plus the microbes/bacteria

Balancing these four components creates a balance that keeps your scraps from becoming anaerobic (smelly). The lack of balance is why garbage smells and compost doesn’t.

Why You Should Try Home Composting

Landfills

  • Our landfills are filling up faster than we can build new ones.
  • Food waste and other compostable materials account for 28% of our landfilled waste.

Improve Your Own Backyard…Literally!

I remember going to the garden center with my dad during my childhood summers. We would load up the cart with tons of “plant food” to aid in the health and growth of his tomatoes and zucchini. If we knew then what I know now about home composting, we could have had all the luxurious compost we dreamed of for free.

  • Your fruit and vegetable waste can actually improve the quality of life if disposed of properly.
  • Organic matter is a resource that can be used to create beneficial products for your garden. 

Getting Started

Compost bin or Worm bin?

First you must choose if you want to have a backyard compost or a worm bin. This will depend on the space available to you as well as how active you want to be in the process of composting. 

Compost bins

Compost bins require at least some monitoring to make sure that your components are balanced. They should be on a level, well-drained surface at least two feet away from any fence or structure, with easy access to water. For a more passive composting experience, you may consider a worm bin.

Setting up a compost bin:

  1. Get a bin. It is best to find a bin that is bottomless (so that it is integrating directly into soil) but has a top to keep critters and pets out. I like The Soil Saver compost bin. It is 28″x28″x30″ and has four sides and a cover, but no bottom to allow microbes and bacteria from the earth to process your waste.
  2. Place the bin on a flat surface near a water source, like a hose.
  3. Line the bottom of the bin with cardboard – remove all tape/labels before starting
  4. Gather greens/browns.
    • Greens are things like kitchen waste (no meat, dairy, processed foods), fresh-cut grass, vegetarian manure, etc.
    • Browns are things like dead leaves from last season, shredded paper, and cardboard.
  5. Begin to layer greens and browns in a 1:3  ratio, respecitvely.
  6. Add water as your layer to ensure that your pile is moist and inviting for worms and microorganisms.
    • Be careful when adding water to grass clippings or shredded paper – we don’t want to matte down the pile or make paper mache. This will cause your pile to go anaerobic and potentially begin to smell.
  7. Using a pitchfork or other tool, mix your pile thoroughly and keep it fluffy. 
  8. Maintenance:
    • Periodically check the temperature of the pile using a compost thermometer. The ideal temperature of a pile is 90F. If you notice your compost is higher than 120F you may want to add some water and turn the pile again. If your pile is below 90F you can leave it alone (it will just take longer to break down) or you can add more greens to speed up the process. 
  9. Harvest: When compost is finished it will be a beautiful chocolatey brown color and smell like sweet earth. It is best to leave finished compost for 2-3 months before using in your garden. If you notice your pile is steaming it might need to process a little bit longer.

Video References

Worm bins

worms, worm bin, compost

Worm bins are a better choice if you prefer hands-off home composting. At first mention, the idea of a “worm bin” sounds creepy and gross, but it’s really a magical box of tiny sanitation workers. Worms are the powerhouse of composting. They self-regulate and need very little care. We currently have two thriving worm bins, one inside and one outside. All you need to do is feed the worms and they reward you with precious gardening gold, worm castings. 

Setting up a worm bin

  1. Get a bin or make your own.
    • DIY worm bins require two stacked plastic bins.
    • Drill holes on the bottom (to allow for liquid – or lecate – to escape) and air holes on the sides (so the worms can breath)
    • Make sure the top bin has a cover (to protect from elements and keep pests away)
  2. Fill a bucket with water. Tear up some cardboard and soak it in the water while preparing the worm bed.
  3. Line the bottom of the upper tray with cardboard – this will keep your worms and their castings from falling to the lecate tray below.
  4. Fill the bed with shredded paper or coconut coir (must be soaked ahead of time). 
  5. Add the soaked cardboard all around the bin. If using shredded paper it is important to keep the bed very moist for the worms as the paper will create a dry environment and make for unhappy worms. 
  6. Gather kitchen scraps for the worms. Worms love avocado skins, strawberry tops, tomatoes, and other sweet fleshy fruits and veggies. But they hate citrus, potatoes, onions, and garlic.
    • Pro-tip: When you add food to the bin it is best to bury it beneath some paper/cardboard. This will keep the flies away as well as any unwanted smells. 
  7. Add worms.
    • Worms can eat half their weight every week.
    • If you add 5 pounds of worms you should only be adding 2.5lbs of scraps per week.
  8. Cover the top bin with a “worm blanket.” A worm blanket helps maintain moisture levels as well as suppress any smells that will attract flies. 
  9. Cover with a lid.
  10. Harvest.
    • When you are ready to harvest it is best to stop feeding the worms for at least two weeks.
    • After two weeks, you can prepare another tray (the same way you did the first).
    • Move the worm blanket from the bottom tray to the upper tray. Start adding food to the upper tray and the worms will begin migrating upwards.
    • After another two weeks, most worms will have migrated, leaving the bottom tray full of castings. These castings can be added to your garden as a natural fertilizer.

Troubleshooting Guide

Why is my bin smelly?

  • You may be overfeeding the worms. Try feeding less, or cutting the food into smaller pieces. You may also try digging the food down a bit deeper, below the bedding.
  • The lecate tray might need draining. Check the bottom lecate tray and empty if it is smelly. If the bin is too moist try adding more shredded paper.

Why do I have fruit flies?

  • Banana peels- One of the biggest culprits (in my experience) of fruit flies is banana peels. If you are feeding the worms banana peel this can attract fruit flies. You can either eliminate bananas or you can bury them deeper in the tray where the flies won’t be able to smell them. 

Why are my worms escaping?

  • Sad worms- The main reason for worms leaving is that they are unhappy.
    • Check the moisture level of the bedding. It may be too dry or too wet. Adjust accordingly.  

Video References

Fun Information:

Conclusion

This guide provides a good foundation for home composting. As with all things, there is a learning curve and some trial and error that will occur when you begin home composting. In the end, you can take pride in knowing that you are diverting unnecessary food waste from our landfills while cultivating rich biodiversity in your soil. 

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Local Compost Drop-Off Sites

  • The NYC Department of Sanitation began a DSNY Compost initiative. Residences throughout the five boroughs are able to place food scraps in brown garbage bins that are distributed by the Department of Sanitation. Unfortunately, the program is only offered to residents of the West New Brighton, Castleton Corners, Westerleigh, Graniteville, Elm Park, and Mariners Harbor neighborhoods in Staten Island. At this moment the program is suspended due to Covid-19. We are waiting on a response from DSNY as to their future plans regarding the program’s expansion within Staten Island.
  • GrowNYC: GrowNYC offers compost drop-off at their St. George and Staten Island Mall Saturday farmer’s markets. The program is unfortunately suspended until further notice due to Covid-19.
  • Snug Harbor Cultural Center: Snug Harbor offers compost drop-off and educational opportunities. The program is unfortunately suspended until further notice due to Covid-19.
  • Olivet Presbyterian Church: You can drop your compost off at this church located at 97 Myrtle Ave. At the time of this writing, we have not received word if it is currently open or not. You can inquire with them by calling (718) 981-5043
  • Serpentine Commons: Located at 599 Van Duzer Street there is a secret compost location at the entrance of Serpentine Commons. It isn’t maintained at ideal intervals so if you’re feeling generous, bring a pitchfork and give the compost pile a turn

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