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Learning about compost in Leelanau County

This coverage is made possible through a partnership between IPR and Grist, a nonprofit environmental media organization.

There are a lot of different ways to compost in a lot of different places, from big piles in a field to a bucket on the kitchen counter.

Last month, the Leelanau County Solid Waste Council held a workshop for backyard composters at the Poor Farm Barn to help people like Nancy Miller figure out some of the twists and turns.

“I started a few weeks ago,” said Miller, an insurance agent who lives in Cedar. “I got a little countertop composter for my kitchen waste. And then I realized that I needed more than that, so then I ordered a tumbler from Amazon, and so now I have a two-sided tumbler.”

A tumbler is a container that rotates, providing oxygen to the organic matter inside. It’s just one way to actively manage compost.

During the workshop, volunteers demonstrated the three-bin system, where the person tending the compost moves the scraps through three different piles as they decompose. A freestanding compost pile can be turned using a shovel.

“Composting can be active or passive. And passive is when you let your material just sit there and it just does its work by itself,” said Kate Thornhill, who helps run the Leo Creek Preserve in Suttons Bay and led the workshop.

Aerating the organic material speeds up decomposition, since oxygen allows the microorganisms breaking down the materials to breathe.

A healthy mix

An optimal compost requires the right temperature and amount of moisture, and is made up of two types of ingredients:

• Browns: Materials that provide carbon, like dead leaves, twigs or paper.

• Greens: Materials that provide nitrogen, like grass clippings, fruit and vegetable scraps, and coffee grounds.

Making the materials smaller — like slicing up old fruit — also means they will break down more quickly. By actively managing a pile, Thornhill said northern Michiganders could produce a finished compost in about three months.

A good compost requires two types of ingredients. One is referred to as “browns”; materials that provide carbon like dead leaves, twigs — even paper. The other is “greens,” which provide nitrogen, like grass clippings, fruit and vegetable scraps, and coffee grounds.

That brown to green, carbon to nitrogen ratio is important; the ideal ratio is three parts brown materials to one part green materials, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The microbes use carbon for energy to metabolize and breathe. They use the proteins from the materials that provide nitrogen to grow and reproduce.

“If you don’t have enough nitrogen you’re going to have a very slow developing compost pile. It’s going to take a long time to decompose,” Thornhill said. “If you have too much green material it’s going to be a smelly mess. You know, when you walk up to your compost pile, it really shouldn’t smell.”

With the right ratio and temperature, along with adequate moisture, the scraps will turn into a dark mixture with an earthy aroma.

But it might take beginners a few tries to get their compost on the right track — something Miller ran into.

“In my tumbler so far what I have in there is kind of soupy and smelly. So I’ve found out I have to add a lot more of the brown stuff to it,” she said. To even it out, Miller plans to add materials like shredded paper and waste from her garden to even it out.

And the slightly smelly start hasn’t deterred her.

“That’s what I’m here for today, is to try to learn how to do this correctly,” she said.

We’re hoping to check back in this summer with Nancy to see how the composting is going.

Izzy covers climate change for communities in northern Michigan and around the Great Lakes for IPR through a partnership with Grist.org.