By Susie Kopecky.
We know there are many options when it comes to your garden and waste management. Are you not thrilled at the idea of the compost heap because of the infamous tales of curious smells emanating from within said mysterious piles? Fear not, gentle composter: there are ways to go green through composting, without having to sacrifice your nostrils!
Composting is nothing new. And it is recognized as a valuable way to reduce large amount of waste. According to the EPA, “yard trimmings and food residuals together constitute 26 percent of the US municipal solid waste stream.” Composting is a fairly basic, low-tech way to deal with home and garden waste while also benefitting the yard. Compost can be defined as “organic material that can be used as a soil amendment or as a medium to grow plants,” and contains humus, which is “created by: combining organic wastes (e.g., yard trimmings, food wastes, manures)… adding bulking agents (e.g., wood chips)… to accelerate the breakdown of organic materials.”
However, as in any process where organic materials break down and are reabsorbed, certain gases are released and smells may accompany such processes. The EPA lists some benefits of composting as that compost piles can be both environmentally-friendly and friendly to the pocket book, offering “cost savings of at least 50 percent over conventional soil, water, and air pollution remediation technologies, where applicable.”
Okay, so there are clear environmental benefits to using a compost pile, but what about the smell which seems to present the largest obstacle to widespread compost acceptance? Such a notorious smell is actually the result of incorrectly composting. According to EcoCycle.org, such a smell should not accompany a correctly-formed compost pile, as “Healthy compost smells like soil. If your compost is smelly, that’s a sign that it needs more air.” What is also rather remarkable about this is that “the compost process works best at temperature between 120 and 150 degrees,” according to as How To Compost, which offers useful tips for compost beginners.
Does your garden smell bad, naturally? No, and neither should a compost pile. It is with the addition of outside materials (which are not appropriate to a compost pile) or overloading of a pile, which can create the unpleasant smell too often associated with compost heaps. A compost pile should be full of basic ingredients such as leaves and trimmings, and generally, should not be treated as a catch-all trash pile. Certain foods which attract wild animals should not make up a significant part of the pile, as animals will come and the smell of the breakdown of such food items may be disturbing. How To Compost also advises composters to stay away from “meat or pet droppings,” and to instead keep it simple, and “stick with food scraps and yard waste only.”
EarthEasy.com recommends keeping a balance of around carbon-rich (“like branches, stems, dried leaves… bits of wood… shredded brown paper bags, coffee filters, egg shells… peat moss”) and nitrogen-rich matter (such as “manures, food scraps, leafy materials like lawn clippings and green leaves”) within each composting pile, with the carbon material dominating. And if smells do emanate, EarthEasy also recommends “adding lime or calcium” to the pile, or “carbon-rich elements such as straw, peat moss or dried leaves” or covering “new additions to the compost pile with dry grass clippings.”
The good news is that if smells do arise from compost piles, they can generally be attributed to three possible causes. According to Compost-Bin.org, the three unpleasant smells which can come from compost bins can be traced to ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and volatile fatty acids. To combat common sources of smells, Compost-Bin.org recommends “churn[ing] and add[ing] bulk material to compost such as bark mulch, to prevent compost compaction”; keeping the compost pile at the proper temperature (not getting too low, as it should not be much below at least 100 degrees); making sure not to allow for “proper ventilation” so as to avoid the accumulation of too much moisture; and making sure there is the proper carbon-nitrogen ratio, as an overabundance of once can lead to the undesired smells.
Indomitable optimists realize the infinite potential of all: “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” – President Teddy Roosevelt. Susie “Danger” Kopecky is a regular contributor to Green Living Press.