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Composting: It's Easier Than You Think

Get a compost bin for free or cheap from your trash collector to start reducing your kitchen waste - and don't forget to add worms.

In college, I threw egg shells out of my dorm room window into the flower bed because I knew organic matter didn't belong in the trash, I just didn't have a way to compost.

But flower beds in Healdsburg needn't be littered with egg shells. Residents can get free or low-cost equipment for home composting that is easy to use and produces high-quality soil for gardens or potted plants.

At our house, we went with the worm composter. I'm not saying it's better than a compost bin, which I've used in the past. To be honest, I just wanted the worm farm in the back yard.

The Sonoma County garbage hauler is Redwood Empire Disposal and their phone number is 585- 0291. They provide backyard composters for a fee. You can contact them for more details.

Sonoma Compost is the regional compost operator for the area. They recycle all of the yard debris that is collected curbside by the garbage company. They produce organic compost, and mulch is for sale to the public. They also have recycled lumber available at affordable prices. Their phone number is 707 664-9113. Their website is www.sonomacompost.com.

Another important local resource for recycling and composting information is the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency. They have a great website www.recyclenow.org and also a 28 page recycling guide they publish every year. It is available online and paper copies are available at their office or at Sonoma Compost.

Jerry Gach, a San Jose worm breeder better known in some circles as "The Worm Dude," explained that backyard composting—like in a bin—is good for yard debris while worm composting is best for kitchen waste. 

About worms, he advised: "Feed them a lot. They’re very voracious. … all they do is eat, poop and breed."

Whether you select a worm bin or a regular composter, it's important to keep the project healthy. It may seem like any ol' food scrap should go in the heap, but there's actually a science to it. Here are some tips:

  • Keep a canister in the kitchen for food waste destined for the compost bin.
  • The compost pile needs to stay damp, but not soggy.
  • Don't compost meat or milk-based waste. It'll smell and attract animals.
  • If there are varmints in your neighborhood (rats, raccoons, even nosy dogs) make sure the top of the compost bin is secure. It shouldn't be a buffet for animals.
  • Don't feed worms yard waste, like twigs and grass clippings.
  • Compost might have an odor, but it shouldn't be vile. If it's stinky in your compost bin, turn it over with a shovel or pitchfork and add leaves. If the worm bin gets ucky, cut back on "feeding" the worms for a bit.

Gach said the problems with both types of composting usually boil down to too much mositure or too much "food" at once.

Homemade bins can be constructed out of scrap wood, chicken wire, fencing or even old garbage cans (with holes punched in the sides and bottom). Manufactured bins include turning units, hoops, cones, and stacking bins. These can be purchased from your garbage company, retail or mail-order businesses. For more information about homemade bins, visit the Sonoma County Master Gardeners.

"You only want to keep your backyard compost pile damp like a rung-out sponge," he said, adding that it should have a healthy mix of carbon and nitrogen materials, along with moisture and oxygen. Find more about composting on the recyclenow.com website.

By the way, if you go with a worm bin, you'll need to get some worms. They're available at some stores, or you can make your own using free plans and low-cost salvaged lumber from Sonoma Compost Company at (707) 578-5459.

For worms and worm bins, contact Sonoma Valley Worm Farm, www.sonomavalleyworms.com or phone (707) 996-8561 or (800) 447-6996.

Eventually, you will turn your kitchen waste into beautiful, healthy soil. In the worm bin, it also will be full of nutrient-rich worm castings. Work it into your garden or use it to pot houseplants.

"You can put your compost on a fern, orchid and you don’t burn it up,” Gach said. He added that worm castings provide beneficial bacterial, “that’s what makes your plants grow so fabulously.”

Other bonuses? You reduce your trash output and, if you have kids, the whole effort is an at-home science project.

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