Offgrid Preparation Putting Waste to Work with Backyard Composting
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Mother Nature has a way of taking things back, whether it takes months or millennia. This inevitable process is known as decomposition— in layman’s terms, this is when organic matter rots, decays, or breaks down into simpler compounds. For the prepared, decomposition processes can be a valuable tool for waste management and soil enrichment — this is commonly known as composting. Today, we’ll look at a few rules to speed the process up and some ways to incorporate a compost heap into your prepping strategy.
As much as we may try, food waste is inevitable. Whether it’s that head of lettuce you forgot in the back of the fridge or garden scraps, something always ends up in the trash. Using these scraps toward a compost pile helps keep them out of the trash and turns them into incredibly-beneficial soil amendments. Leaves falling from trees will decay over time and help the soil below, but the process can take months or even years. That may not be a problem in the middle of a forest, but those of us with limited space and time can make the process go much faster.
The best way to think about items going into your compost pile is to separate them into “browns” and “greens”. Browns are your sources of carbon. These includes things like dry leaves, shredded paper, and wood shavings/dust. Greens are sources of nitrogen. These are grass clippings, fruit and vegetable scraps, and manure.
Keeping your additions to the pile cut into chunks in the range of ¼” to 2” will help them decompose faster by increasing the surface area without limiting aerobic activity.
Above: A helpful guide to items that will make effective additions to your compost heap, and those that could be problematic or dangerous. (Source: Idaho Master Gardener Handbook / NRAES-43)
Ideally you want to create an environment with a 25:1 carbon-to-nitrogen (C/N) ratio. This translates to approximately 2 or 3 parts green to every 1 part brown. However, there's a spectrum ranging from strong greens like fresh manure (7:1 C/N ratio), to weak greens like coffee grounds (25:1), to weak browns like hay (90:1), to strong browns like wood chips (700:1). Too many items from either extreme will skew your C/N ratio and cause problems, which we'll discuss later in this article.
Microorganisms are doing the work in your compost by breaking down the materials. They will “eat” sugars and proteins first for energy and then feast on more woody materials. Keeping the ratio even will aid the microorganisms in their job.
Keeping your heap moist is important for a healthy decomposition. If compost becomes too dry the process slows dramatically; too much water and a similar problem occurs. Lack of water is a very common problem in arid environments with little rain. Adding water often to keep the pile uniformly moist while also turning it is paramount for success. To check the moisture level of your pile use a simple squeeze test — grab a handful of compost and squeeze it in your hand. If water drips out you are over-watered, if it stays clumped together and is damp you are just right, if it is dry and crumbles apart, add water.
Pile: Composting can be as simple as a pile of twigs, leaves, and scraps in the middle of your yard. Adding the right materials, in the right amounts and turning them frequently with a pitchfork will ensure success.
Fences: Piles can be supplemented with walls such as readily available pallets or other wood structures. These allow the heap to be controlled and easily layered without spreading around too much. These are simple to build and only require three sides to be closed off. Leaving the front exposed for you to work in makes these a very attractive option.
Wire Units: With readily-available chicken wire or similar materials making a cylinder and piling materials inside will create an effective structure for composting.
In-Ground Method: Another simple method for composting is to dig a large trench or hole in the ground (or use an existing one such as a removed tree stump) and fill with your material. This method allows microorganisms in the hole to easily access the new material and begin to break it down.
No matter which method you choose it is best to keep the pile’s footprint to roughly 3’x3’ to 5’x5’. This size is large enough to allow the pile to heat up properly. Having multiple piles is also beneficial to allow materials to break down over time and be able to continuously add to them.
Your compost pile must reach a specific temperature in order for the microorganisms to really get to work. The ideal temperature is between 125°F and 140°F. If you have maintained the correct brown-to-green ratio and the pile is of adequate size, reaching these temperatures inside the pile should not be a problem.
Testing the core temperature inside the pile is easier than taking a human’s temperature. Simply use a long thermometer and insert it into the middle. Obviously weather and seasons play a factor but generally during normal summer temperatures you can hit the mark.
Problems can arise with compost piles but the end result will be the same. It all depends on time and quality. The two most common problems, although not the only two, are odor and slow decomposition.
Odor problems generally stem from excess moisture or an inaccurate ratio of greens and browns. An overly wet pile will smell rotten and can easily be corrected by turning the pile and mixing materials to soak up the water. An ammonia odor is associated with too much nitrogen. Mixing in carbon-rich brown materials such as leaves and pine needles will allow the pile to right itself.
Another problem that can occur are pests such as flies, rodents, and other critters being attracted to your pile. These usually persist when food scraps are not properly mixed in with brown materials. The typical suggestion is to bury these types of greens 6-10” below the surface inside the pile.
Compost piles can provide the maker with greatly-improved soil. Compost can be used for simple things like top dressing a yard to improve soil health or sowed directly into a garden to improve soil nutrients. Being able to recycle your food scraps and turn them into a quality product is beneficial and keeps waste and pests down creating a cleaner and healthier environment.
Whether you’re looking to live a fully-sustainable off-grid lifestyle or simply trying to reduce your family’s grocery store and garden center bills, composting is a worthwhile endeavor. Rich composted soil will decrease your reliance on curb-side garbage pickup and help your backyard garden thrive.
Looking to learn more about how home gardening can factor into your survival plans? Check out our review of 6 Gardening Books for Your SHTF Library.
Alexander Crown served as an Infantryman with the Scout/Sniper Platoon of the 3rd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment in Ft. Richardson, Alaska, where he specialized in radio communications and reconnaissance. Since separating, Alexander spends his time as an avid outdoorsman and hunter with an appreciation for self-sufficiency in the form of gardening. He also enjoys woodworking, firearms, and reloading. You can follow him on Instagram @acrown509.