Compost Activators: Get Better Compost in Less Time
Did you ever notice that some things compost beautifully, while other things bog down your bins? I try to keep an eye out for the exceptionally good compost activators that I come across. These can be very handy if you keep big compost piles, because they help your compost heat up and finish faster.
To be totally honest, some of the best things I’ve found aren’t actually free. I keep a bag of cottonseed meal fertilizer on hand just so that I can kick a slow pile of compost into gear, or finish a pile up quickly for an upcoming planting. But you don’t have to spend any money at all if you don’t want to. Here are 5 compost activators that are free for the asking (if you ask the right person).
5 Free, DIY Compost Activators
A quick word of warning: if you’re using compost tumblers and putting in mostly fresh kitchen scraps, these nitrogen boosters are probably not a good idea for your tumblers. It’s more likely that a nice carbon source like dry leaves or shredded paper would speed your compost up. The following 5 boosters are nitrogen sources, which are intended for people who have big piles of compost with dead leaves from the yard, dead weeds, etc.
Compost Booster #1—Yard Waste
Just a couple of weeks ago, I scored 4 full paper yard waste bags. All it took was asking my neighbor down the street one simple question: “Hey, are you going to get rid of those”? He was confused for a split second, standing there with two arms wrapped around a full bag, probably thinking, “What the heck else am I going to do with this huge bag of trash”? But he knows I’m a plant nerd and an avid gardener, so it didn’t take him too long to figure it out. He helped me carry the bags to the compost pile in my backyard, instead of carrying them up to the curb in front of his house. In the end, he seemed happy that his yard waste didn’t go to waste.
I will confess that I’m a tiny bit picky about what goes in the piles. I love thin, papery things like tall grass clippings, annual weeds, etc. And I try to avoid thick, heavy, waxy leaves like hollies and privet. One time I ended up with two huge bags of live oak leaves and those suckers hung around in my compost piles forever—even after I used a lawn mower to break them up in to smaller pieces. This time around, I struck gold—4 big bags mostly full of clover, cleavers, grass clippings, and dried elm leaves.
Compost Booster #2—Supermarket Waste
Some grocery stores will give you their past-date produce if you ask for it, but not all stores will go along with this. I’ve heard that some big chains have policies that say their employees can’t give away old produce, probably because of the legal liability that someone could get sick from eating it. So, you might have the best success asking at independent local markets and small regional chains.
A word to the wise: for this approach, try to strike up a casual friendship with the employees in the produce section. Chat them up and get to know them a bit, if you can. If you casually mention that you make a lot of compost, and that you would love to put that old wilted lettuce in it, you’ll have a better chance than if you ask the manager at the service desk. There’s likely a regular day and time when they throw the old produce out to make room for the new stuff. So, work your charm a little and find out what day that is.
Compost Booster #3—Coffee Grounds
Just walk in to any coffee shop and ask nicely. I’ve been able to get spent coffee grounds from big national chains and from local shops—in the city and in the suburbs. Some people will probably get mad at me for mentioning this because they think I’m telling everyone about their secret stash. But in most places there are more than enough grounds to go around. I’ve personally never been told “No, you can’t have any grounds.” One time I walked into a Starbucks right as someone else was walking out the front door with 2 buckets full of grounds. When I asked if there were any more grounds, the barista told me to come back in a couple of hours—no big deal.
Definitely bring your own bucket for this trip, because the coffee house will probably give you the grounds in a big trash bag, and they will definitely be sloppy. We have a nice agreement with a coffee shop in our neighborhood where we drop off a clean, empty 5 gallon bucket in the morning, and we pick it up full of grounds later the same day.
Compost Booster #4—Hair
Some people might flinch at the idea of composting hair from strangers for their vegetable garden, but the crafty composter can find some big payloads at the neighborhood hair salon or barbershop. Just look at the floor next time you’re in there—it’s covered with so much hair that they have to keep sweeping it constantly. You might run in to some different rules and regulations depending on where you live and whom you ask. Several years ago, I heard about a barber in another country who was facing legal action because he was composting hair—the hair was regulated as commercial waste, and needed to be discarded in a government-approved receptacle. But I know that some local shops will set hair aside for you if you ask for it. If there’s a pet grooming service in your neighborhood, that would be worth a try, as well.
Compost Booster #5—Urine
This one will be a little easier for the fellas—but with a jar or bottle, anyone can contribute their “spare nitrogen” to the compost pile. If you host a barbecue or an informal party, put a little sign in the bathroom and ask if the guys wouldn’t mind peeing on the compost pile instead. They can contribute if they’re comfortable with it. Of course, most people will pee more (and be more likely to pee on your compost pile for you) after they’ve had a drink or two!
You could even set up a little screen in front of the pile so that anyone with “stage fright” won’t be too worried about peeing in front of a crowd . . . .
Keeping It Clean
There are potentially problems with all of these free compost ingredients—and that’s where your better judgment will need to kick in. I’ll give you a few examples of what I’m talking about:
If my neighbor had the most lush, pristine yard in the neighborhood, I might suspect that he was using lots of synthetic chemicals, and I would probably pass on his grass clippings.
Likewise, I’d prefer to get past-date produce from the organic aisle of a local market, rather than the conventional aisle of a major chain.
And I’d rather take hair clippings from a humble barber shop than from a posh salon.
If I knew that one of my friends was taking 15 prescription drugs, I definitely wouldn’t ask him to pee on my compost.
Trust your instincts, and don’t compost things that you think are too toxic to use in your veggie garden compost. But also trust the composting process to break down some of those nasty items and return them safely to nature. There’s an entire microscopic food chain playing out in your compost pile, and many things will be completely broken down and returned to the garden as healthy nutrients for your plants.
When I’m in doubt, I throw the compostables that I don’t want in my veggie garden into a separate pile that is only used for ornamental plants around the landscape.
What Do You Think?
What do you use to give your compost a jump-start? Let us know in the comments below!
(This is an updated version of an article that was originally published on May 3, 2016.)
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