Outdoor, Indoor Fall Composting Tips, Tricks

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Tompkins Weekly     9-28-22

By Adam Michaelides

Fall is here! The balmy days of summer have gone, and we’re seeing color on the leaves, tomato plants dying in the garden and shorter days. Here in New York, kids go back to school in September, the seasons change, and harvest season is in full swing.

One gift of fall is the abundance of biomass for the compost. Gardeners start their end-of-year cleanup by removing dead plants. Leaves begin to fall and will do so more and more until they’re all down. Those of us who process food crops for storage have additional scraps. All this biomass can be used to bulk up the outdoor compost.

As the fresh material in the compost decomposes, microbes generate heat. A warmer, active compost works better and faster. Having more material helps insulate the core of the compost bin. You’ll be amazed at how composting continues throughout the fall, even as temperatures dip down below freezing. For additional tips on extending the life of your outdoor compost, see our winter composting factsheet.

The compost demonstration area at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County. Photo provided.

Though material added this fall will likely not be ready for next spring’s garden, you will be well on your way to having compost for next summer or fall. Using finished compost on garden beds this time of year sets you up for spring. It replenishes organic matter lost, and if used as mulch, it will protect the soil from harsh winter conditions.

One way to use finished compost this time of year is to incorporate it in the soil when planting. Dig compost into the garden bed and then plant garlic. Fall is a great time to plant or transplant perennials. Mix the soil from the planting hole with around 20% compost and then use the mix to backfill. Then, mulch garlic with a thick layer of straw and perennials with wood chips. But be careful to keep wood chips away from the trunk of the tree or shrub.

There are so many ways to use finished compost. Sometimes, you will sift it as you dig it out of the bin. Other times, you’ll use it complete with pieces of partially decomposed wood debris, shells, skins and pits. Use this “chunkier” compost on top of the soil as mulch. For incorporating it into the soil, first sift the compost through a half-inch screen. For potting mixes, sift it a bit finer (one-quarter inch is OK).

Fall is also a great time to start composting indoors with a special, indoor bin. People who don’t compost outdoors in the winter sometimes switch to composting indoors with a worm bin, bokashi bucket, commercial indoor unit or a stealth bin. They do this to keep active composting going without the fuss of maintaining the backyard bin over the winter.

Worm bins are kept indoors in heated or partially heated areas and use a certain type of earthworm called “red wigglers” (common name). The Latin or scientific name is Eisenia foetida. After adding moist bedding and of course the worms, add food scraps to the bin.

Worms can eat half their body weight every day! So, if you start with one pound of worms, you can eventually feed them up to half a pound of food scraps every day. Over time, a dark layer of compost forms in the bottom of the bin. Worm bins can be very effective and produce particularly rich compost for houseplants. You can also use worm compost to make “compost tea.”

Bokashi composting is a different animal altogether. This indoor composting method is a two-step process. You first ferment, or chemically treat, your food scraps in a sealed bucket using a blend of microorganisms. After that, you add the fermented scraps to a compost bin or bury it in the soil. At this stage, the material breaks down very quickly and sequesters carbon.

One advantage of bokashi composting is that you can include meat or dairy products — items usually not included in home composting systems. Another advantage is that you can make compost quicker.

There are commercial, indoor units that convert food scraps into compost. They are relatively small and come with detailed instructions. Though they are more expensive than DIY systems, having the convenience of a machine to process food scraps makes it easier for some people to compost. Typically, the product that comes out of the device must sit outside for a time to finish breaking down.

The last indoor, home composting method mentioned above is the “stealth bin.” This low-tech system gets its name from its appearance. On the outside, it looks like a normal trash can. However, on the inside, you’ll find an inner trash can where food scraps are layered with “browns” like shredded paper, leaves and sawdust. Below the inner bin is a thick layer of wood chips that soaks up excess moisture.

A stealth bin works a lot like an outdoor compost bin, except it is contained and can be kept inside your home, garage or on the porch. Keeping it in a heated space helps it to work faster.

If you want to keep food scraps out of the landfill, but prefer not to compost at home, you can “fork them over” to the county Food Scraps Recycling program. There are 15 drop-off locations, including the Recycling and Solid Waste Center on Commercial Avenue in Ithaca.

This free service comes complete with a kitchen caddy, transport container and compostable liner bags to help keep things clean and convenient. For more info, including drop-off locations and hours, visit https://recycletompkins.org/recycling-and-composting/food-scraps-recycling/ or call Tompkins County Recycling and Materials Management at (607) 273-6632.

Composting food scraps and other organics — instead of putting them in the trash — helps the environment. Transporting organic wastes and disposing of them in distant landfills generates greenhouse gas emissions. To do our part to slow climate change, we can compost food scraps at home or “recycle” them through the county.

In October, the Compost Education Program at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County is offering a two-part, outdoor class series on advanced techniques for outdoor and indoor composting. The first class is Oct. 13 and will focus on outdoor composting. Topics include a recap of compost basics, bin options for outdoor composting, how to manage and troubleshoot, when to harvest and how to use finished compost.

The second class in the series is Oct. 20. Most of this class will be about worm composting, but we will also cover other indoor methods. Each participating household will go home with a working worm bin!

Classes will be held entirely outdoors from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at CCE-Tompkins, 615 Willow Ave. in Ithaca. Dress for the weather. In the case of heavy rain or other inclement weather, one of the classes could be postponed to Oct. 27.

The fee for the advanced composting series is $10/class or $15 for both classes. Please register in advance so that we can communicate with you prior to class. Register early because space is limited. For more info and to register, visit ccetompkins.org/advancedseries or call Cooperative Extension at (607) 272-2292.

I hope to see you at the advanced series in October. In the meantime, good luck turning your spoils into soils.

Adam Michaelides is the program manager for the Compost Education Program at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County. The Compost Education Program is sponsored by the Tompkins County Department of Recycling and Materials Management.

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