Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The DD's Comprehensive Guide to Saving Money by Growing Your Own Food, Part I: Compost

I was struggling with choosing what aspect of this guide I would use as material for part one of my frugal food-growing guide.

I wondered if I should start by explaining how to find the best price on seeds.  Seems like a reasonable place to begin.  Or maybe I should first talk about which vegetables will produce the biggest bang for the buck.  After all, we should know that information before even planting the first seeds, right?

I thought about the topic for this post for a good week, unable to make a decision.  Then it finally hit me... compost.

"Really?  Compost?  That's what you're starting with?  How droll!" is probably what you're thinking.  Or you're wondering what the meaning of "droll" is.  Don't worry, I had to look it up, too!

Anyway, yes, I decided to center my first article of this guide around compost.  And for good reason.  Compost is the foundation that this whole guide is based around.  It's the single best soil amendment for plants, and it can be made by anyone, for free.

Why is compost so important for growing your own vegetables?  As explained more thoroughly by Washington State University, compost provides nutrients to soil, increases the availability of said nutrients, aerates compacted soil, supports beneficial organisms that encourage plant growth, retains water, reduces soil erosion, and nearly eliminates food waste.  After reading that list, who wouldn't want to start composting?

Most important to the point of this article, compost can be made completely free of charge at home.

The most important factor of growing food frugally is improving the condition of the soil you are growing in.  Bags of soil amendments at the local plant nursery or home improvement store will cost a small fortune, especially if you are working with a large planting area, or terrible soil (or both).  Homemade compost will provide the nutrients your plants need to grow better than those bagged amendments, and cost you nothing.

Perhaps the only downside of compost is that it takes time.  Remember how I said I had a good reason for starting this guide with an article on compost?  Well, time is that reason.  If you start composting now, you will probably have enough material to amend a decent size vegetable bed by the time spring rolls around!

How to Start Composting

Just doing a google search of "how to compost" will bring up hundreds of guides and instructions on how to make your own compost.  There's dozens of various methods, some simple and some complicated.  There's compost bins, compost barrels, compost tumblers and other devices that may make composting easier or faster.  There's even compost starters, which supposedly contain the bacteria responsible for activating the composting process.

To start composting, you don't need to buy any of that stuff.

This shady spot near the fence is my backyard is perfect for compost
Just find a spot in your yard a bit out of the way, preferably out-of-sight for you and your neighbors.  Make sure there is enough room to make a small pile (about 3' x 3'), and a little extra space for you to turn the pile occasionally.  If you have unused gardening edging or chicken wire lying around, you can make a border around the area you want for the compost pile, but if you don't have this stuff, don't sweat it.  It's not going to make a big difference.

Next, start collecting organic material.  Organic material can be a wide range of things, including kitchen food scraps, leaves, grass clippings, straw, dryer lint (may contain synthetic fibers that take centuries to break down), cardboard, dead plants, and a million other things.  Despite all the recommendations about finding the right carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, I don't really worry about it, and neither should you.  As long as you're mixing a decent variety of organic materials together, it's all going to decompose eventually.

Once you've collected some material, just dump it on your designated composting area.  Continue to collect more organic material and dump it on top of the pile.  Every week or so, use a pitchfork or shovel to mix, or "turn" as some say,  the compost thoroughly, which will help prevent odor and break down the material faster.

Keep doing this process for a month or two.  That's it.  That's all it takes to make the best soil amendment available.  Your compost will be ready to use when the original material is no longer recognizable, but more like a dark, crumbly soil-like mix.

What Not to Compost

I try to compost almost all of the organic "waste" material that I can, but there are few things I try not to put in the pile:

  • Meat - it'll attract animals and pests
  • Bones - they take way too long to decompose
  • Oils & fats - a little of both of the problems above
  • Shiny or colored paper/cardboard - possible to leach harmful inks/dyes into the soil
  • Cat/dog poo - possible to transmit infectious diseases or parasites into the soil

Anything Else?
Here's some compost I already have "working"

Not really.  Nature will take care of the rest.  Continue to add organic material and mix until you have a sizable amount of compost.  I will show you what will be done with the compost within the next few parts of this series.

If you complete this most important first step of the guide, you will be well on your way to harvesting delicious organic fruits and vegetables while saving a ton of money on soil amendments, one of the largest costs of growing your own food.

Total Costs So Far

The total cost of growing your own food so far:
  • $0 for compost

Click here to read Part II: Planning What to Grow

Addendum 12/06/2013: Added pictures 

Edited 5/6/2014: Added a comment that discourages the use of dryer lint in compost

1 comment:

Daphne Gould said...

I'm commenting because I couldn't find your email and would like to speak to you about Granny. Some of the folks that read her blog are getting together to do something for her. If you want to join email me at daphne@alum.mit.edu, I could put you on the email list to discuss it. I'll send out a mass email about it on Monday to the emails that I have. Hopefully she doesn't read comments on old posts.