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How to make your own mulch

A beginner's guide for the lazy composter.

By Karen Datko Oct 21, 2009 8:15AM

This post comes from Little House at partner blog Wise Bread.


One thing I enjoy about my small garden is the fragrant smell of my lavender plants and the movement of the feather grass in the wind. I have become an avid small-garden and container gardener. In the process, I've also gotten very eco-conscious about what I put on my plants and in my garden.


I began to research other gardening Web sites, specifically ones that discuss eco-friendly alternatives to fertilizers. The nitrogen in fertilizers isn't healthy for the environment. In excess, it is harmful to your soil, and to aquatic animals when the nitrogen-filled water is washed out to sea.


The more I researched, the more I realized that I could make my own fertilizer, or mulch, using my kitchen waste. Not only do I reduce my kitchen garbage, I reuse it to benefit my plants. I also save money by not having to purchase additional nutrients or replace dead plants very often. It's a three-for-one deal.


Picking your composter

I researched a variety of composters, from worm bins to plain old plastic tubs. I knew that as a beginner, I wanted to start with something easy, and something that wouldn't make me squeamish. I had a variety to choose from:

  • Worm bins: This composter is filled with live worms and you can turn it with a handle. The worms will break down most kitchen food waste. You can place this composter inside a home or outside, but not in direct sunlight.
  • Earth Machine composter: A black plastic composter with vents, a lid, and a small door for easy access to your mulch. You can put in some paper products, yard waste, and food waste, minus the meat and oils. This composter is an outdoor composter; it doesn't have a bottom.
  • Backyard composter: Another outdoor composter, it is made up of stacks of plastic squares. You can take the top off the composter and make it the bottom, and vice versa. (This helps turn the compost.) It also composts yard clippings and food waste, minus meats and oils.

Because my goal was to make composting easy on myself, I contacted my Department of Water and Power (LADWP) and found out they offer all three types of composters. One weekend a month, they offer a short seminar and sell their composters at various locations. Sometimes, they even give away free trees.

While browsing the composter selections, and examining them up close, I made some decisions: I didn't want to remove, restack, and re-shovel my compost, so I decided the backyard composter was just too much work for me. The worm bin made me a little squeamish, and I knew I wasn't ready for this composter yet. I finally decided that the Earth Machine composter was the best choice for me. The removable lid makes it easy to add materials from the top.


What you can compost

Having chosen the Earth Machine composter, I was not only able to add food scraps to my compost, but also grass clippings and shredded paper. Most composters compost best when they have an even amount of "green" and "brown" waste added to them.


Green waste includes vegetable and fruit scraps from your kitchen, grass clippings, leaves and garden trimmings, and coffee and tea leftovers (including used filters and tea bags). Brown waste includes bread, wood chips, shredded paper, nut shells, and dry straw and pine needles. Having even amounts of each makes for a nutrient-rich mulch.


These materials will compost, or break down, better if they are in equal amounts. For instance, if there is too much shredded paper, or brown material, in your composter, it might take a long time for it to break down and may become dry.


I placed my Earth Machine right outside my back door --  one tip of many listed in a handy booklet that comes with the composter. Placing it close to an outside door is ideal. If you place it too far from your kitchen or house, you may not use it as often as you like.


Another idea I gleaned from various Web sites is that you want to keep a small trash can, preferably with a lid, to hold your kitchen scraps. This way, throughout the week you can collect carrot tops, pepper cores, peeled potato skins, and any fruit or veggie leftovers in a sealed container, and only have to dump it into your composter once or twice a week. Having a lid on your container helps minimize gnats or any fermenting smell.


Once you start emptying your kitchen scraps and yard clippings into your composter, it's best to stir or turn it twice a week. Honestly, I'm a lazy composter, and I turn it only every two weeks or so. However, the more you turn your compost, the quicker you end up with mulch. If you're lazy, like me, it just takes longer for that end result.


Your compost should retain a consistency of a damp sponge, moist but not too wet. Moisture, or lack thereof, is easily remedied by either adding water if your compost is too dry, or adding brown materials if it is too moist.


I live in an arid region, so my problem is usually that my compost is too dry. When I water my plants, I try to add some water to my compost pile. Also, when I empty my small kitchen scrap container, I like to rinse it out with water. I use that water to dampen my compost.


Quick tips

Some quick and handy tips for composting:

  • If you select an outdoor composter, keep it close to your house for easy access.
  • Turn or stir your compost weekly for best results.
  • Add water if your compost is too dry; add brown materials, like shredded paper, if your compost is too wet.

Your garden will love you

What comes out of your composter is a nutrient-rich mulch that your plants will love. Mulch is usually pH-balanced, so most plants will benefit from adding it to their soil -- even plants in containers.


Your kitchen garbage will be reduced, which means you won't be lugging trash bags to the curb as frequently. You'll save money because you won't need to purchase fertilizer as often for your garden and your plants to prosper. Finally, you can rest assured that any mulch that is washed into the storm drains won't harm aquatic animals.


Related reading from Little House and Wise Bread:



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