Composting in the desert and the right style of composting for you
This is part one in a two-part series (or maybe three, I haven't decided yet).
I’m in the desert, at a work-trade residency with A-Z West. I live in a shipping container converted into a small bedroom that has one kettle, a desk, and a sleeping bag. There’s also an outdoor kitchen, a chicken coop, a French couple dressed identically in tailored work pants, white tees and tennis shoes, and a pomegranate tree bearing its signature clusters of small, flushed fruit. The French couple and I trade off buying beer on different nights and watch the sunsets together.
There is, of course, a compost.
There is also a lot of time to think about compost. The staff here know a little bit about running their bins, but also have tons of questions and are relatively new to decomposition. (They’re working with me on updating what they call “the compost protocol.”) This has got me thinking about teaching beginners again and how plainly difficult it can be to learn to compost. There are just no definitive answers with a lot of this stuff. Instead, there’s an array of possible conditions—factors that must be considered in relation to other factors. It can be tough!
For example, I get asked this all the time:
“What kind of compost should I build?”
It’s such an important question! One of the most. Unfortunately, though, there is no single right answer. Instead, there’s a mixture of things to consider. Most importantly: what kind of space do you have? and How much effort do you feel like putting into this?. Some of us have lots of space and some of us have almost none. Some of us crave physical activity and others just want a break. It can get overwhelming really fast, so I tried my hand at making a simple 2x2 that might help simplify all the complicated stuff for the composter who’s just getting started.
Editor’s Note: For purposes of this 2x2, “Lots of space” is a euphemism for “outdoor access,” e.g. you have a yard or acreage of some kind.
Okay, first locate yourself on the graphic:
Second, scan the below list from my archives for the guide associated with your selected compost approach.
Third, have fun. :)
Bokashi. Bokashi is not technically “composting,” but it is still a great way to sustainably manage your food waste if you live in an apartment. It is cheap to set up, odor free, and can fit discreetly under the sink.
One-bag-under-sink compost. This is a classic from the “Rodale Book of Composting.” Less discreet than bokashi, but still requires very little space and almost no effort. (You’re just putting stuff in a bag.) I wrote this edition from a rural area of Mexico, I guess, leading me to consider how often I am in random places without internet and what the implications of that might be for trying to build a compost career online.
Vermicompost. This is an overview of worm compost + step-by-step instructions on how to build your own bin for super cheap. I placed this option right on the edge of “a lot” and “a little” space, because not everybody wants to live cozied up to a tub full of worms. This option is great, though, if you have a modest amount of extra space, like a garage or a small yard. It’s odor free and you keep it covered, so it’s not likely to attract animals—a nice reassurance for worried neighbors who might be in proximity.
3-bin compost system. The most classical of all compost systems. I do love a three-bin because I appreciate their efficiency and I love to get a workout. People are always asking me “where I go to the gym.” My gym is the 3-bin system. However, this many bins do require a LOT of space to manage properly. If you’re looking to work up a regular sweat + you have acreage, this might be the right set up for you.
Compost tumblers. Actually… I don’t recommend these. (The link explains why.)
Single-bin system. I’ve never specifically written about this, but I should. In the meantime, this wonderful article by Rose Maura Lorre covers the basics of single-bin systems and then recommends a great and affordable compost bin. I placed this set up in the “lots of space” category because bins are bigger than tumblers or worm bins, and are less easily tucked away. (Most people I know want a bit of a buffer between their compost and other backyard activities.) The single-bin just works best if you have a decent-sized yard.
Open air pile. The link is an homage to my left-behind-when-I-moved open air compost pile, a true sweet angel of microbial activity and the occasional salamander that I still miss dearly. For obvious reasons, I think open air piles work best if you have some decent yard space and a little privacy. Neighbors almost never love them.
Compost trench. I’ve never written about trench composting before, but I will in a future edition. Trenches can be great for situations where animals are a concern, since you’re burying the food scraps. I located it halfway between “a little” and “a lot” of effort since it requires digging an initial and fairly gigantic hole, but after that you’re pretty much in the clear. Here’s a straight-forward and useful guide about trench composting from The Spruce.
Let me know what you think or if you find this even remotely helpful. I’m working on building a few different compost worksheets and tools while I’m out here, and I would love to know if any of them are even getting close to useful. Your thoughts welcome, just hit “reply.”