Barefoot Gardener: Quick Compost

January 19, 2020, 10:23 AM HST (Updated January 19, 2020, 10:23 AM)
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The Rubbish Can and the Forget-About-It composting methods. For the Forget-About-It method, make sure the bag is twisted tightly shut. This keeps the contents in an anaerobic environment. Photo: J.M. Buck

Not too long ago, I was at a friend’s house and was helping her prepare food for a party. I was charged with the veggie platter, and when I asked her where she put her vegetable scraps, I was surprised when she told me to just throw them away. Being she had a cute little garden in her yard, I asked her why she wasn’t composting.

“I’d love to, but I don’t have room in my yard,” she replied. “Besides, it’s so much work!”

The idea of making your own compost can seem infeasible if you have a very small yard. It may be intimidating if you don’t have the time or the physical ability to work a traditional compost pile. Or it could be that you are just impatient and have resigned yourself to buying expensive bags of compost just so you can get on with your gardening.

No worries. I felt the same way until I learned about the methods I am about to share with you. When I started using them, I was renting a place with virtually no yard—I had only the end of a driveway and a fair-sized lanai where I could make compost for my container garden.

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That said, there are a couple of ways you can make your own rich, dark compost and minimize the amount of food waste going into the trash.

The first method is what I call the Rubbish Can method. All you need is a standard outdoor rubbish can—the round one with wheels and a lid — a bungee cord, a shovel, and something that will shred vegetative material. For outdoor stuff, a lawnmower works well. If a service takes care of the yard where you live, ask the yard guys for a rubbish bag full of grass clippings. They will probably look at you like you’re nuts, but they will usually accommodate you. For kitchen scraps, just chop them up or run them through a food processor or blender. The point is to have your vegetative material chopped up as finely as possible, as this expedites the composting process.

You will layer material inside the rubbish can as follows: Shovel some soil into the bottom of the can. Two or three scoops will do. Then add a few shovels of grass clippings and other shredded vegetative material. For extra fast results, add a two to three-inch layer of organic chicken manure and a dusting of dolomitic lime, or you can expedite the process using compost starter enzymes, which can be purchased at almost any garden supply place.

Another thing you can do to really pump up your compost is to add some seaweed from the beach. Rinse it thoroughly with fresh water before adding it to your compost. Repeat the layering of soil, vegetative material, and other additives (except for the compost starter, which you will add only one small handful) until the can is three-quarters full. Add a gallon of water and secure the lid to the can with the bungee cord. Roll the can around until everything is completely mixed then find a sunny spot where it can stay. Roll the can around for a couple of minutes every three days. By the end of two weeks (three, tops) you should have a can full of prime compost. Fair warning: when you take the lid off, the gases will stink something fierce as the composting process produces methane. The smell goes away quickly though. Put the can downwind of your windows for a day, or spread the compost out on a tarp to dry a bit. The latter is the quickest way to release the methane.

You can get creative with this method: have compost cans at different stages, or have a can just for vegetable scraps that you add to your other cans, and so on.

The second way is great if you have either: 1. No time. 2. No inclination to make compost but would like to be more self-sustaining. I call this one the Forget-About-It method; more formally called the anaerobic method. It takes about a month, but it works just as well.

Put three or four heavy-duty black rubbish bags inside each other and use the same layering method and water amount described above until they are half full. I recommend using contractor-grade bags as they can withstand a heavy load. Twist them closed as tightly as you can against the contents to insure as much air as possible is out of the bag. Fold the twisted top in half and tie it off with a zip tie or twist tie. Leave it in the sun and forget it for about a month or two.

After you open the bags and regain consciousness from being knocked out by the seriously stinky methane release (follow the previous instructions regarding quick methane release), you will have some excellent compost.

Happy gardening!

J.M. Buck
J.M. Buck has been a Hawai‘i news writer and columnist since 2003. She has extensive writing experience and has served the media industry in a variety of capacities, including news editor, investigative reporter, online publisher, columnist, web content writer, graphic designer and photographer. She has lived in the Hawaiian Islands for most of her life and is a graduate of University of Hawai‘i.
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